When the time is right: biophysical interactions in tropical and temperate coastal ecosystems


Climate change is affecting the timing and intensity of storms and flooding. The consequences of such changing ‘forcing’ on plant communities remain, however, largely unexplored. A recent publication Balke and Nilsson (2019) highlighted that river flood peaks increasingly overlap with growing seasons in central Europe. Similar shifts may occur in coastal systems where seasonality and intensity of storms may be changing in relation to timing of biological events in plant communities. In ecosystems along land-water interfaces, where interactions between organisms and physical processes are key drivers to biodiversity and community dynamics, climate change effects are of particular relevance. However, we do not know what the consequences of such altered temporal relationships may be. Thus, a better understanding of the effects of synchrony/asynchrony of physical and phenological events is needed. The successful candidate will embark on an interdisciplinary journey researching the effects of timing of physical processes (storms, flooding) and biological processes (plant phenology) in coastal ecosystems (mangroves, salt marshes, dunes). In depth fieldwork and greenhouse experiments will be carried out to study effects of within year variability and biophysical timing in combination with data analysis of long-term change in biophysical relationships. Fieldwork and experiments will be carried in the UK and Indonesia, allowing a comparison between climatic zones and biogeographic regions.

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Image Captions

image1.jpg- “Tidal mesocosm setup at University of Sumatera Utara”
image2.jpg – “Mangrove pioneer forest exposed to physical disturbance”
image3.jpg – “Intertidal marsh vegetation in Scotland “


This PhD studentship is substantially based on fieldwork, accompanied by growth experiments in the greenhouse and in mesocosm facilities. Moreover the student will develop a meta-analysis of existing datasets on synchrony of plant phenology and storm/flood events in the coastal zone.
1. The field monitoring methods will be interdisciplinary across plant ecology, meteorology, hydrology and geomorphology. The successful candidate will set up automatic monitoring with data loggers and time lapse cameras and conduct regular surveys of permanent vegetation plots and drones. Hydrology and hydrodynamics will be monitored across seasons using a new low-cost logger setup developed by the supervisory team. The aim will be to elucidate the effects of synchrony and asynchrony of various physical and biological processes. This component will be largely carried out in Scotland/UK.
2. Experiments in the field, greenhouse and mesocosm facilities (see Fig.1 for tidal mesocosm setup at the University of Sumatera Utara) will be designed to test effects of specific timing of stress and disturbance on plant survival and trait expressions. Common garden experiments will be set up to test for adaptations of the same species in contrasting regions to specific seasonality of forcing.
3. The PhD student will be trained in data analysis of large datasets and conduct a systematic meta-analysis of existing data on bio-physical timing and shifts in seasonality of coastal ecosystems.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Setting up of permanent plots and collation of database for the meta-analysis of biophysical timing. Installation of field monitoring equipment for monitoring across 3 years. Training in systematic meta-analysis and statistical analysis of time series.

Year 2

Comparative experiments using greenhouse and mesocosm facilities in Scotland and Sumatra, comparing salt marsh and mangrove species response to timing of physical forcing. Research stay at the University of Sumatra, Indonesia. Continued field monitoring and start of meta-analysis.

Year 3

Common garden experiment and manipulative field experiment to test local adaptation to abiotic seasonality. Continued field monitoring and data retrieval.

Year 3.5

Finalize meta-analysis and write up of dissertation. Attendance of international conference.

& Skills

This studentship will equip the graduate with a range of highly desirable skills from technical skills in field and laboratory to statistical, spatial and time series analysis skills. Development of expert knowledge in the R statistical programming language will be encouraged and facilitated by the supervisory team. The successful candidate will be able to access postgraduate training opportunities at the University of Glasgow and the University of Stirling and will be part of two active research groups with ongoing RCUK funded research activities in the proposed interdisciplinary subject area in the UK and overseas. The interdisciplinary nature of the project will allow the PhD student to develop specialist knowledge in coastal plant ecology, hydrology and geomorphology, all highly relevant skills in time of climate change and rising sea levels. The overseas research visit to Indonesia will further develop the student’s intercultural skills.

References & further reading

Balke, T. and Nilsson, C. (2019) Increasing synchrony of annual river-flood peaks and growing season in Europe. Geophysical Research Letters, 46, 10446-10453.
Balke T, Herman PMJ, Bouma TJ (2014) Critical transitions in disturbance-driven ecosystems: identifying Windows of Opportunity for recovery. Journal of Ecology. 102, pp. 700-708.
Rouger R, Jump AS (2015) Fine-scale spatial genetic structure across a strong environmental gradient in the saltmarsh plant Puccinellia maritima. Evolutionary Ecology, 29, 609-623
Rouger R, Jump AS (2014). A seascape genetic analysis reveals strong biogeographical structuring driven by contrasting processes in the polyploid saltmarsh species Puccinellia maritima and Triglochin maritima. Molecular Ecology, 23, 3158-3170

Further Information

Applications: to apply for this PhD please use the url: https://www.gla.ac.uk/study/applyonline/?CAREER=PGR&PLAN_CODES=CF18-7316

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