PhD Studentship: Quantifying the radiative impacts of African landscape fires across multiple temporal and spatial scales

PhD Studentship: Quantifying the radiative impacts of African landscape fires across multiple temporal and spatial scales

Wildfires play a fundamental role in the Earth system.  Globally, an area of the order 350 Mha is burned on an annual basis, with substantial associated carbon emissions.  The disturbance to the atmospheric and surface state caused by fire events can be sensed remotely from space using a variety of techniques, including identification of ‘hot-spots’, burnt area and fire radiative power as well as atmospheric impacts such as concentrations of certain gases and aerosols.

Termed by NASA the ‘fire continent’, substantially more than half of all global annually burned area occurs in Africa (Giglio et al., 2013).  While there has been a substantial amount of research focused on quantifying African fires and their gaseous and particulate emissions, and on investigating their interplay with cloud formation and development, work has tended to focus on specific locations within the continent and not on the overall impact of fire activity on top-of-atmosphere, atmospheric and surface radiative energy budgets at different scales.  Both temporal and spatial resolution are likely critical in correctly capturing the severity of fire events in terms of their instantaneous and longer-term radiative impacts (e.g. Andela et al., 2015, Dintwe et al., 2017).  Quantifying and understanding the drivers behind these scalings will also bring new insights as to how well the link between fire occurrence and radiative impact is, and can be expected to be, captured in current global Earth-system models.   

In this project we will primarily make use of high temporal resolution observations from two instruments onboard the geostationary Meteosat series of satellites, namely the the Spinning Enhanced Visible and Infrared Imager (SEVIRI) and the Geostationary Earth Radiation Budget (GERB) instrument, both viewing Africa from 2004 until the present day.   We will use the fire detection tools developed by co-supervisor Wooster and implemented operationally on the data stream coming from SEVIRI and use these alongside data from GERB, which is the only broadband instrument in geostationary orbit, and which assesses Earth’s outgoing energy fluxes every 15 minutes.  Alongside this information we will use burned area data mapped from a series of polar-orbiting satellites, such as the European Sentinels and NASA’s Terra and Aqua. Studies using synergistic data from SEVIRI and GERB have already established techniques to probe the radiative impacts of cloud and dust aerosol, and this project represents an ideal opportunity to develop and apply these approaches and insights to the specific challenge of wildfires.        

Aside from being the Principal Investigator for GERB, main supervisor Brindley is managing the involvement of the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) in NERC’s UKESM Multi-centre project.  One area of future development for UKESM is the incorporation of a fully coupled wildfire scheme so it is anticipated that the research proposed here will inform this activity by providing observational tools for model evaluation and subsequent improvement.   

Studentship Overview

The studentship will be supervised by Dr Helen Brindley at Imperial College London and co-supervised by Professor Martin Wooster at King’s College London. Dr Brindley’s research focuses on the observation and interpretation of the Earth’s broadband and spectrally resolved outgoing energy. Professor Wooster is an expert in wildfire detection and monitoring from space, including linking their occurrence to their impact on atmospheric composition.

The student will be based within the Space and Atmospheric Physics Group (SPAT) within the Physics Department at Imperial’s South Kensington campus. SPAT delivers world leading research in climate physics, with specific, relevant expertise in Earth observation, carbon cycle research and climate modelling over a range of scales. The student will also join a vibrant interdisciplinary research community in the Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society, which includes staff and PhD students and staff from Imperial College London, King’s College London, the University of Reading and Royal Holloway, University of London, with a common vision of producing evidence-based understanding of the human-fire nexus that can help inform policy and practice.  They will also have the benefit of becoming part of the NCEO, a distributed NERC Centre with significant expertise in observing and modelling biosphere-atmosphere interactions, including links to the carbon cycle.

How to apply

The applicant will have a good undergraduate degree (min 2.1) in Physics, environmental sciences or an allied field. They will either have, or be working towards, a Masters degree or equivalent in a relevant field. The successful candidate will have excellent quantitative skills, with experience of data analysis and/or numerical modelling.  Since the project may involve fieldwork, relevant experience in using and/or developing instrumentation will also be an advantage. The candidate will have experience of writing and presenting to a high standard, and a willingness to work in interdisciplinary teams.

Applicants should submit:
i) A CV (max 2 A4 sides), including details of two academic references;
ii) A cover letter outlining their qualifications and interest in the studentship (max 2 A4 sides)
These should be sent by email to by January 31st 2021 with “Leverhulme PhD” as the subject. Interviews will take place, likely virtually, in February 2021.

For further information on the project, please contact

Funding Notes

The studentship is funded by the Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society and the National Centre for Earth Observation. The student will be funded at £17,285 stipend per annum paid for 3.5 years. The studentship will cover UK(Home) fees for its entirety with support funding available for fieldwork and conference attendance. It will start in October 2021.