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Remote sensing investigation of how oil palm cultivation is degrading Malaysia’s tropical peatland ecosystem services

Malaysia’s North Selangor peat swamp forest is experiencing rapid and large-scale conversion of pristine swampland to oil palm agriculture, contrary to prevailing environmental guidelines. This peatland degradation is leading to the loss of valuable ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration, biodiversity, ground water recharge and surface water nutrient removal.

This project aims to combine airborne remotely sensed imagery and in situ vegetation, soil and gas flux data to investigate the environmental effects of this land use change through seven stages of degradation: (1) undisturbed peat swamp, (2) drained peat swamp (forest remaining), (3) cleared forest, (4) burnt areas, (5) new oil palm plantation, (6) five year old oil palm and (7) 10 year old oil palm.

Hyperspectral and lidar imagery will be analyzed to derive information on land cover dynamics, vegetation structure and productivity, and soil state. These properties will be integrated and calibrated with field data to enable accurate spatial characterization of oil palm development and consequent wetland degradation and loss of ecosystem services. The project will involve an intensive field campaign in Malaysia, following an airborne remote sensing campaign.

A further field campaign will take place in the second year of the PhD to investigate the process of peatland degradation over time.

The project is based at the University of Nottingham, UK, with supervisors from Geography and Biosciences providing training in remote sensing and tropical peatland science. However, the project also represents a wider research collaboration involving organizations in the UK and Malaysia, and the student will spend some time based at the British Geological Survey near Nottingham and the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus in Kuala Lumpur.

Eligibility: Applicants should hold a minimum of a UK Honours Degree at 2.1 level or equivalent in subjects such as Geography, Biosciences, Environmental Science or Geomatics. Some experience of remote sensing and/or environmental fieldwork would be advantageous.

For further details please contact Dr Paul Aplin: