This theme encompasses many different facets of research across STEMM, the social sciences and humanities, including the sustainability of natural and modified ecosystems in the face of societal development and climate change, climate change science, adaptation and mitigation, mining and its corresponding global environmental challenges, sustainability and the circular economy.

PhD projects

5. Modelling the role of biodiversity in ecosystem resilience to climate change: comparing tropical forests and coral reefs

UQ academic lead

Professor Peter Mumby, Vice-Chancellor's Research and Teaching Fellowship, School of Biological Sciences

Exeter academic lead

Professor Peter Cox, Professor in Climate System Dynamics, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences

Project description

Ecosystems are under increasing pressure from climate change, climate variability, and direct human disturbance. This is especially the case in high-diversity tropical ecosystems, such as coral reefs and tropical forests. It has been widely-accepted that biodiversity confers additional resilience by including a wide-range of functional and genetic characteristics, each of which can ‘step-up’ and become more prevalent should conditions change. In this way, greater biodiversity is expected to imply a greater ability of ecosystems to adapt to environmental change. However, the mechanism for this adaptive capacity is essentially a change in the species composition of the ecosystem, and that process depends on the characteristic lifetime of the species involved. We might, therefore, expect the importance of diversity for the resilience of ecosystems to depend on the lifetime of the key species. This PhD project will model the role of biodiversity in ecosystem resilience to climate change, contrasting tropical forests for which the primary producers are very long-lived trees and coral reefs for which the primary producers are short-lived phytoplankton and algae.

The motivating question for the PhD project will be: ‘What is the role of biodiversity in ecosystem resilience to climate change, in both tropical forests and ecosystems?’ It will combine the respective expertise of the primary supervisors in modelling tropical forest responses to climate change (Cox), and in understanding the response of coral reefs to environmental stressors (Mumby).

Related readings

This PhD would build-upon a very successful previous PhD studentship co-supervised by Cox and Mumby (Lester Kwiatkowski) which yielded a number of high-profile papers, including two in Nature journals:

Kwiatkowski L, Cox PM, Economou T, Halloran PR, Mumby PJ, Booth BBB, Carilli JE, Guzman HM (2013) Caribbean coral growth influenced by anthropogenic aerosol emissions. Nature Geoscience, 6, 362-366.

Kwiatkowski L, Cox P, Halloran PR, Mumby PJ, Wiltshire AJ (2015) Coral bleaching under unconventional scenarios of climate warming and ocean acidification. Nature Climate Change, 5, 777-781.

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