Peatland hydrology: a global comparison using the PeatDataHub monitoring network

Project summary

Peatlands are important carbon stores holding an equivalent to two thirds of the atmospheric store (Yu et al., 2010; Yu, 2011). Peatlands occur in tropical, temperate and high-latitude locations (Xu et al., 2018). Peatlands accumulate carbon by preserving dead plant material in a wet state which reduces oxidation so that net carbon loss is smaller than net accumulation (Charman, 2002). Therefore, the condition of a peatland is strongly controlled by its hydrological processes.

While there are different types of peatland, ranging from fens (mainly groundwater fed) to bogs (mainly rainwater fed), the basic properties of extensive saturation are thought to be the same (University of Leeds Peat Club et al., 2017). Typically saturation state is measured by determining the depth of the water table, and water table is one of the most commonly measured parameters when scientists and practitioners want to monitor a peatland. However, water tables fluctuate throughout the year (Holden et al., 2011) and can be spatially variable depending on the location within the peatland (at a micro or macro topographic scale) and also whether management is impacting the site (Holden, 2005; Holden et al., 2006; Moore et al., 2015). The availability of a large amount of data on peatland water-table dynamics means that if it were carefully pooled together from different sites, using clear data comparison protocols, we might be able to undertake some global assessments of the variation of water-table depth (spatially and temporally) for different types of peatland under different topographic, climatic or management influences.


This PhD project seeks to use the PeatDataHub platform and network to compile and standardise data from sites around the world in order to enable the successful student to interrogate datasets on water table and other hydrological properties to understand more about global peatland water-table dynamics.

The student will work with peatland scientists from around the world to help curate the datasets and lead the analysis of these datasets. PeatDataHub workshops have already brought together scientists from around the world who have agreed to be part of PeatDataHub and protocols for data sharing and co-authorship of papers are already in place (Young et al., 2016). The project would have flexibility in terms of the types of approaches and questions that could be addressed. For example, the successful student may wish to examine peat properties, permeability, evapotranspiration or surface water discharge or to link hydrological data to carbon data, and perhaps to use the data to inform or develop models or examine recent climate change impacts. However, we envisage hydrological datasets being central to the project. The work will have a global focus and will be of relevance for understanding global carbon dynamics and peatland restoration targets.

Potential for high impact outcome

The project will have a global focus and as such be likely to lead to papers submitted to top international journals. The supervisors of the project, in line with the spirit of the PeatDataHub network, would encourage the student to produce a thesis by publications (the research papers published in journals forming the main thesis chapters), which is an exciting route for PhD students at the University of Leeds. The work will connect the student to lots of peatland scientists and study sites around the world, thereby creating a network of contacts that will enhance the future career prospects of the student. The project should also be of interest to major peatland conservation organisations such as GPI, IUCN and Wetlands International.


The student will work under the supervision of Dr Gabriela Lopez-Gonzalez who is the water@leeds co-ordinator and PeatDataHub ecoinformatics lead and has expertise developing international ecoinformatic tools; Professor Joseph Holden and Dr Paul Morris within the River Basins Processes and Management research cluster in the School of Geography.  Holden and Morris will provide training on peatland hydrological processes and, depending on the direction of the project, modeling. Lopez-Gonzalez will provide training on research data protocols, curation, database systems and working with and developing international data networks. The student would join water@leeds, which is the largest interdisciplinary water-related research centre in the world. The student would therefore have access to a wide network of contacts and water@leeds training opportunities. Supervision will involve regular meetings between all supervisors and further support of a research support group.

Student profile

The student should have a background in a related subject such as physical geography, environmental science, earth science, hydrology/water management or ecology. The student should have excellent communication skills in order to work with scientists around the world in compiling and curating data. They should be happy to work on a PhD project that will be largely desk-based. Good analytical, data presentation and GIS skills are desirable but suitable training will be provided during the PhD.

peatland landscape



Charman, D., 2002. Peatlands and environmental change. John Wiley, Chichester.

Holden, J., 2005. Peatland hydrology and carbon cycling: why small-scale process matters. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 363, 2891-2913.

Holden, J., Evans, M.G., Burt, T.P., Horton, M., 2006. Impact of land drainage on peatland hydrology. Journal of Environmental Quality 35, 1764-1778, doi:1710.2134/jeq2005.0477.

Holden, J., Wallage, Z.E., Lane, S.N., McDonald, A.T., 2011. Water table dynamics in drained and restored blanket peat. Journal of Hydrology 402, 103-114.

Moore, P.A., Morris, P.J., Waddington, J.M., 2015. Multi-decadal water-table manipulation alters peatland hydraulic structure and moisture retention. Hydrological Processes 29, 970-982.

Reed, M.S., Young, D.M., Taylor, N.G., Andersen, R., Bell, N.G.A., Cadillo-Quiroz, H., Grainger, M., Heinemeyer, A., Hergoualc’h, K., Gerrand, A.M., Kieft, J., Krisnawati, H., Lilleskov, E.A., Lopez-Gonzalez, G., Melling, L., Rudman, H., Sjogersten, S., Walker, J.S., Stewart, G. (2022) Peatland core domain sets: building consensus on what should be measured in research and monitoring. Mires and Peat, 28, 26, 2

University of Leeds Peat Club, Bacon, K.L., Baird, A.J., Blundell, A., Bourgault, M.-A., Chapman, P.J., Dargie, G., Dooling, G.P., Gee, C., Holden, J., Kelly, T., McKendrick-Smith, K.A., Morris, P.J., Noble, A., Palmer, S.M., Quillet, A., Swindles, G.T., Watson, E.J., Young, D.M., 2017. Questioning ten common assumptions about peatlands. Mires and Peat 19, 1-23, doi:20.19189/MaP.12016.OMB.19253.

Xu, J., Morris, P.J., Liu, J., Holden, J., 2018. PEATMAP: Refining estimates of global peatland distribution based on a meta-analysis. Catena 160, 134-140, DOI: 110.1016/j.catena.2017.1009.1010.

Young, D.M., Morris, P.J., Holden, J., 2016. Upscaling Peatland Science Through Collaborative Big Data. Eos 97,

Yu, Z., Loisel, J., Brosseau, D.P., Beilman, D.W., Hunt, S.J., 2010. Global peatland dynamics since the Last Glacial Maximum. Geophysical Research Letters 37, L13402, doi:10.1029/2010GL043584.

Yu, Z.C., 2011. Holocene carbon flux histories of the world’s peatlands: Global carbon-cycle implications. Holocene 21, 761-774.