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School of Environment, Education and Development

Two Geography students on field trip
BA Geography with International Study

Study a course tailored to you at the university ranked fourth in the UK for Geography (Guardian University Guide).

BA Geography with International Study

Year of entry: 2018

Course unit details:
Dryland Environments: Past, Present and Future

Unit code GEOG30531
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Geography
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Drylands, or deserts, are fascinating environments, covering > 1/3rd of the terrestrial surface of the Earth and they are full of captivating landscapes. Drylands contain a long history of past environmental change and human interaction. These environments experience a number of environmental hazards and face specific challenges in the face of global climate change. This course provides an introduction to drylands, and a chance to build on your understanding of geomorphology, climate change (past, present and future), as well as the challenges within human-environment interactions. Despite the uniqueness of drylands, you will see that the geomorphological processes and environmental issues that you will learn about in this setting have very wide application all across the globe, particularly in terms of fluvial processes and the work of the wind (aeolian). 


·       To develop an understanding of the physical characteristics of drylands

in terms of geomorphological features, with a focus on  aeolian and fluvial processes and the interactions between water, the wind, sediment and vegetation.

·       To explore and unpick the nature of past environmental change in these environments

over long (Quaternary) timescales in response to climatic conditions, and to have a critical appreciation of the methods used to reconstruct environmental change.

·       To acquire and develop scientific skills in the field, laboratory and classroom related to understanding environmental processes and long term change. 

·       To critically evaluate the effect of environmental characteristics and processes on human populations and the impact that humans have on dryland environmental processes.

·       To invoke an interest and curiosity in the window that geomorphology on earth provides for understanding other planets, particularly Mars.  

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course you should have gained:

·    an understanding of the importance of dryland environments as part of the earth system.

·    the ability to describe and explain key processes and how these shape landforms and the human use of the environment.

·    a working knowledge of the theoretical basis and empirical techniques to reconstruct past environments in drylands.

·    experience and confidence in descriptive and analytical approaches taken in the field and laboratory in the study of drylands (geomorphology and Quaternary environmental reconstruction), which have a wide applicability to a range of other settings.

·    critical insights into the ways in which humans interact with dryland environments, including geohazards and pressures on natural resources. 



Lecture (2 hrs)

Seminar/Lab class/Fieldwork/Task


Introduction to drylands and variability

submit blog post


Water at the surface in drylands: landforms and processes 

Blog feedback & fieldtrip briefing


Aeolian* processes and landforms    (*=work of wind)

Field class to Formby (day in the dunes)


Aeolian processes and landforms & field-class follow-up   

Sediments lab class


Water under the surface in drylands




submit essay plan for feedback


Dryland biogeomorphology



Quaternary drylands 1: landforms

Portable luminescence reader lab class



submit coursework essay


Quaternary drylands 2:  Speleothems and Middens



People & Deserts: Class discussions on Geohazards & environmental resources


Revision class



Teaching and learning methods

The course is delivered though lecture classes (10 x 2hr) and supported by a varied programme of seminars, fieldwork and laboratory work. Independent reading and study is essential. Reading lists and links to electronic resources will be provided on Blackboard. You are encouraged to use the discussion forum on Blackboard to discuss common questions and ideas about the course and share useful resources. 

Transferable skills and personal qualities

During this course unit students will be encouraged to develop the following abilities and skills:

  • information collation, critical reading, evaluation and analysis
  • use of spreadsheets and numeric analytical skills
  • presentation skills for communicating in front of audiences
  • teamwork skills  

Assessment methods

  • The course is assessed as follows:

    • Field and Laboratory write-up (designed to be submitted as you go) (15%)
    • Coursework essay (35%) 2500 words
    • Examination (2 hours) (50%) (data response short questions and one essay)

Feedback methods

Feedback will be provided in the following ways during this course unit:

·       Verbal feedback through Q&A, discussion and interactive activities within lectures

·       Formative feedback in the seminars, fieldclass and laboratory classes

·       Verbal feedback on any course unit issue through consultation hours

·       Online feedback via a discussion board

·       Written feedback on coursework essays in the latter part of the semester

·       Written feedback on the examination through personal tutorials

Recommended reading


You must read widely on this course to support the formal lectures. This is a 20 credit course, which equates to 200 hours of study. We therefore expect you to be reading independently to support each lecture. Key readings will be given for each lecture, as well as extended lists to help with wider reading and your revision.


The two course texts are:

·         Thomas, D. S. G. (ed) (2011) Arid Zone Geomorphology: Process, form and change in drylands. Third edition. John Wiley and Son Ltd. Chichester.

·         Williams, M. (ed) (2014) Climate Change in Lowe, J.J. and Walker, M.J.C. (2015) Reconstructing Quaternary Environments. 3rd edition, Routledge.


Key journals include:  Geology, Science, Nature, Journal of Arid Environments, Journal of Quaternary Science, Quaternary Research, Quaternary Science Reviews, Global and Planetary Change, Geoarchaeology: An International Journal; Geomorphology; Sedimentology


If you want to know more about the topic ahead of the course, come and chat to Abi and take a look at:


Middleton, N. (2009) Deserts: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, OUP. pp 135.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 20
Seminars 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 168

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Abigail Stone Unit coordinator

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