BSc Geography

Year of entry: 2023

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

Course unit fact file
Unit code GEOG30531
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Geography
Available as a free choice unit? No


Deserts, or drylands, cover 47 % of the terrestrial land surface and are home to more than 2 billion people. Despite this, there are an often overlooked environment in the public and global imagination and certainly within geographical education and study. This course explores the what, where and whys of drylands, unearthing the diversity of dryland landscapes and processes and exploring what combination of things sets them apart from different to other places on Earth. In learning about these environments, a wider understanding of Earth Surface processes is also achieved. The variations recorded within drylands record a rich history of climatic and environmental change. The interactions between humans today and drylands involve a range of geohazards and environmental challenges such as adequate access to potable drinking water. You will explore case studies within a range of these human-environmental interactions. The course also includes field and laboratory training to training in research design and sample collection. You will also build skills and confidence in data analysis and data presentation.


  1. highlight the importance, relevance and uniqueness of dryland environments, which cover 47% of the terrestrial Earth surface, are home to over 2 billion people, and will face substantial challenges under future climate change, including far-reaching consequences outside dryland regions.
  2. provide a detailed understanding of the physical characteristics of drylands, in terms of landscape features and processes and the interactions between processes.
  3. outline and explain understand the nature of past environmental change in drylands over long (Quaternary) timescales in response to changing climatic conditions, and have a critical appreciation of methods used in reconstruction.
  4. provide an introduction to the effects that these environments have on human populations and the impact that humans have on dryland environmental processes.
  5. encourage an interest in the window that geomorphology of Earth provides into interplanetary geomorphology, in particular Martian environments.
  6. provide students with confidence in independent learning, as a vital transferable, employability skill, through guidance of key self-led tasks: (i) an introductory blog post, (ii) field and laboratory investigations and (iii) applying principals learned about the operation of drylands to a class-led discussion about people and drylands (geohazards and environmental resource challenges). [Honing these skills will improve your dissertations] 

Learning outcomes

Provide details of the expected Learning Outcomes, for a student studying this course unit.

If required, these can be further broken down into 'Knowledge & Understanding', 'Intellectual Skills', 'Practical Skills', and 'Transferable Skills & Personal Qualities', in the following fields



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

Blackboard Discussion Board Space and/or Google Jamboards to share and discuss information.


Scheduled office hours for additional drop-ins.

Knowledge and understanding

  • Demonstrate knowledge of the importance, relevance and uniqueness of dryland environments
  • Demonstrate a detailed understanding of the physical characteristics of drylands and how they have changed over Quaternary timescales

Demonstrate an emerging knowledge of the effects of these environments on human populations and the impacts humans have on dryland environmental processes

Intellectual skills

  • understand the importance of dryland environments as part of the Earth system and the processes and landforms that are characteristic of these regions.
  • identify the ways in which humans interact with dryland environments, including geohazards and pressures on natural resources.

demonstrate a working knowledge of the theoretical basis and practical application of the main techniques used to reconstruct past environmental conditions within drylands

Practical skills

  • field research design, use of field instruments and sample collection

operation of laboratory analytical equipment

Transferable skills and personal qualities

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

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Confidence plotting data and performing simple analysis.
Group/team working
In the field and laboratory, working as a team to complete the planning and collection of data
Through the writing tasks (blog post, report and examination) you will hone your creative communication skills.
Oral communication
Discussions in class, and an informal presentation of a case study will develop your confidence and ability in speaking and presenting
Problem solving
The field and laboratory tasks require you to develop how best to collect and analyse data.
Guided reading and encouragement to find wider sources will make you an independent researcher for life, knowing where to go to find reliable information and how to assess its validity.
Written communication
You will develop your skills here via examination essays, a report about field and laboratory data and through a less-formal blog post style.

Assessment methods

Field and laboratory class write-up based on plotting data and short write-up after the field activities and the first laboratory class.  (~1600 words) [50%]

Examination of two essays in two hours [50%]

Formative components:

Blog Post in week 1 about dryland variability.

In-class discussion.

Presentation of a case study about geohazards.


Feedback methods

Feedback to students on coursework via Turnitin for coursework.


Feedback to students on Blogpost via Blackboard area.


Feedback orally to students in class about discussion points and case studies.


Feedback from students to students in class and in discussion forum.


Feedback from students to staff informally in class with post-it note classroom assessment questions twice in the semester, anonymous box and formally through the end unit questionnaires.

Recommended reading

Core text:

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


Cooke, R., Warren, A. and Goudie, A. (1993) Desert Geomorphology. UCL Press.

Goudie, A. S. (2002) Great Warm Deserts of the World: Landscapes and Evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Parsons, A. J., Abrahams, A. D. (2009) Geomorphology of Desert Environments 2nd Edition. Springer. Dordrecht.

Williams, M. (ed) (2014) Climate Change in Deserts: Past, Present and Future. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Fieldwork 7
Lectures 18
Practical classes & workshops 4
Seminars 2
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Abigail Stone Unit coordinator

Additional notes

You might like to do this course if you enjoyed the following…

EPOCH (Environmental Processes and Change) and Dynamic Earth (1st year Geography).

Quaternary Climates and Landscapes, and Environmental Change (2nd year Geography)

You might want to develop your learning from this course with…

Mediterranean Quaternary Landscapes (Year 3), Climate Change and Carbon cycling (Year 3). 

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