Assessing the impact of restoration on surface and sub-surface changes in peatland hydrology and vegetation dynamics: implications for upland carbon storage

Overview

With widespread peatland restoration schemes, being implemented across the UK, aimed at restoring land degraded by decades of unsuitable land management, there is an urgent need for improved monitoring approaches to accurately assess changes in peat erosion / accumulation rates, hydrological functioning and vegetation communities of restored peatlands. A better understanding of the impact of restoration schemes, and of different restoration methods on carbon storage, hydrology and vegetation of UK peatlands can then be achieved. Initiatives such as The Peatland Code [1], a voluntary standard for UK restoration schemes, aim to enable quantitative evaluation and validation. However, characterising and monitoring changes over extensive peatland landscapes remains a challenge, which has restricted the evidence base to justify restoration techniques.
With widespread peatland restoration schemes, being implemented across the UK, aimed at restoring land degraded by decades of unsuitable land management, there is an urgent need for improved monitoring approaches to accurately assess changes in peat erosion / accumulation rates, hydrological functioning and vegetation communities of restored peatlands. A better understanding of the impact of restoration schemes, and of different restoration methods on carbon storage, hydrology and vegetation of UK peatlands can then be achieved. Initiatives such as The Peatland Code [1], a voluntary standard for UK restoration schemes, aim to enable quantitative evaluation and validation. However, characterising and monitoring changes over extensive peatland landscapes remains a challenge, which has restricted the evidence base to justify restoration techniques.

The integration of imaging sensors on unmanned aerial vehicles and geophysical methods such as field-portable low-frequency ground penetrating radar (GPR), have enormous potential to enhance understanding of upland carbon budgets by providing information on erosion dynamics, water table and peat depths, as well as vegetation composition, at regional management scales.

This project will use a carbon budget approach, integrating data on surface and sub-surface characteristics, to better understand the changes resulting from peatland restoration in vegetation communities and hydrology of peatland sites in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

The project will seek to address the following research questions:

1) Using a carbon budget approach what are the net benefits of restoration in upland peatlands?
2) Can bare peat extent, peatland topography and key vegetation indicator species of high quality peatland ecosystems (e.g. Sphagnum mosses) be accurately mapped from imagery obtained using UAVs?
3) How can peat and water table depth information from GPR be integrated with surface monitoring by UAV imaging to better understand hydrology and carbon storage of peatland sites?
4) How does the carbon budget, hydrology and vegetation of UK peatland sites change in the immediate years following implementation of restoration measures such as gully dams?
5) How can these data be used by the project stakeholder to enable data-informed management of peatland landscapes?

Click on an image to expand

Image Captions

Fig. 1: Eroded peatland in Upper Teesdale.
Fig. 2: Unmanned aerial vehicle imagery of eroded peatland Moor House, Upper Teesdale.
Fig. 3. Example elevation-corrected peat GPR data showing internal stratigraphy and basal bog structure.

Methodology

The project will be focussed on the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, who are a collaborative partner in the project, and will build on on-going extensive UAV data collection being carried out as part of existing peatland projects at a number of blanket bog sites currently undergoing restoration. The project will also have access to the latest rotocopter UAV systems at Newcastle University, equipped with laser scanner, optical and thermal imaging sensors. Corresponding field measurements (soil moisture, vegetation survey, topographic data) will be acquired at regular intervals through the project duration. Geophysical techniques, including low-frequency GPR, will also be employed to obtain a better understanding of sub-surface characteristics of the field sites.

The resulting data sets will be processed using state-of-the-art image processing, photogrammetry and geophysical tools, to provide maps of key vegetation properties, bare peat distribution, peat depth, water table depth and topography, with accuracy assessed against field measurements. The project will integrate these data layers to provide an assessment of carbon storage across the sites in space and time.

It is expected that the successful applicant will spend a period of time working at the offices of Northumbrian Water Ltd and/or the North Pennines AONB Partnership in Stanhope, Weardale and will work closely with all project partners involved in current peatland restoration projects.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Year 1: Introduction to research sites and case partner management priorities. Review of literature on use of geomatics and geophysics techniques in peatland monitoring, UAV and GPR skills development, collection of initial imagery and geophysics data sets.

Year 2

Year 2: Continued UAV and geophysical data collection, development of processing methods and validation of data layers against field observations.

Year 3

Year 3: Integration of data layers to understand site vegetation, surface and subsurface hydrology and carbon balance and examine changes due to restoration implementation. Writing of thesis.

Year 3.5

Preparation of publications and reports for project partners.

Training
& Skills

The student will be based in the Department of Geography at Durham University, and will benefit from expertise in the Catchments and Rivers research cluster. Remote sensing and photogrammetry training will be provided by the Modelling, Evidence and Policy research group in the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, along with close links to the Newcastle Earth Observation Laboratory. The student will work in close collaboration with Prof Warburton at Durham University, who is an expert on upland peatland geomorphology and has extensive experience of field monitoring of UK peatlands and will also benefit from engagement with project partners North Pennines AONB partnership and Northumbrian Water Ltd. The student will develop research skills and broader awareness of on-going research through regular participation in research group meetings, seminar series and participation in external national and international conferences, to support their development as an independent researcher.
The successful applicant is likely to have experience in geomatics, geography, ecology or hydrology, and a strong interest in developing skills in use of new technologies and in field work. Full training will be provided in UAV and GPR operation and field validation techniques (including vegetation survey, field spectroscopy, topographic survey and potentially, laser scanning). Technical skills and knowledge, including image processing, programming and statistics, will be developed based on analysis of the training needs of the individual, through a personalised training plan, drawing on taught modules within Durham and Newcastle Universities. The student will also be supported to develop a range of transferable skills, in particular in effective communication, fieldwork and project management and to engage in training and activities of the wider IAPETUS training centre.

References & further reading

Bonn, A., Allott, T., Evans, M., Joosten, H. and Stoneman, R. (Eds.) 2016. Peatland Restoration and Ecosystem Services: Science, Policy and Practice. Cambridge

Evans, M.G. and Warburton, J. 2007. Geomorphology of Upland Peat: Erosion, Form and Landscape Change. RGS/IBG Book Series, Blackwell, Oxford

[1] IUCN UK Peatland Programme, 2017. The Peatland Code. IUCN UK, www.iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org.

Further Information

Professor Jeff Warburton, jeff.warburton@durham.ac.uk, Tel: 0191 334 1952

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