BA Geography with International Study

Year of entry: 2024

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
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. Most people have a picture of the desert: hot and dry, a landscape of rolling sand dunes, a herd of camels, or a threatening wave of land degradation that grabbed the imagination of the international community since the 1970s. The topics you will study through this Optional Course Unit will help you to see beyond these stereotypes and understand the wide variety of conditions that are encapsulated in the dryland environments of the Earth. It may also get you thinking interplanetary and casting your eyes into space towards Mars.

The key characteristic of dryland environments from a physical geography point of view is aridity, which is not only a function of the amount of rainfall (and other forms of moisture input) but relates to a deficit in the ‘water balance’, where levels of potential evapotranspiration are often extremely high. Dryland environments have distinctive characteristics in their atmospheric, lithospheric, hydrospheric and biospheric components. As a result there are a set of geomorphological processes and landforms that differ to those found in a glacial environment, or the temperate and drizzly environment of Manchester. However, if sand seas only make up around 38% of dryland regions, then what does the majority of most deserts look like? Drylands are far from homogenous, with a great diversity of landscapes making up this 47 % of the earth’s land surface, and providing home to more than 850 million people. In addition, have the dryland regions of the present time always been this way? Numerous sites of prehistoric occupation and rock paintings depict parts of the Saharan region teeming with elephant, rhinoceros and hippopotamus and fossils of aquatic fauna record dispersals of animals through a series of lined lakes, rivers and inland deltas across this region more than once over the last 125,000 years.  And what of the relationship between people and dryland environments today? The emphasis on desertification as the perhaps the greatest environmental threat to the planet 40 years ago may have been superseded by other harmful aspects of human activity. But what are the major challenges that people face living in drylands in the 21st Century, in terms of geohazards and resources such as groundwater?

In the lectures, seminars, field experience and lab classes of this course, we will explore answers to some of these questions, and consider and generate many other questions. I hope you will discover the diversity of dryland environments beyond an image of a camel against a sand dune backdrop, and like de Saint Exupery’s Little Prince, decide for you ‘what makes the desert beautiful’.  


  • Allow you to 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 continue to face substantial challenges under climate change, including far-reaching consequences outside dryland regions. 
  • Develop your understanding of the physical characteristics of drylands, in terms of landscape features, geomorphological processes and interactions between processes. 
  • Outline and explain the nature of past environmental change in drylands over Quaternary timescales in response to changing climatic conditions, and have a critical appreciation of methods used in reconstruction. 
  • Provide an introduction to the effects that dryland environments have on human populations and the impact that humans have on dryland environmental processes.
  • Encourage an interest in interplanetary environments, in particular Mars. 
  • 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 formative class-led discussion about people and drylands (geohazards and environmental resource challenges). [Honing these skills will improve your dissertations]


Topics will be drawn from: the action of wind (aeolian processes), the action of water (hydrological processes and subsurface hydrogeological processes), the action of biota (biogeomorphological processes), how these processes interact to create the landscapes we observe today, changes through time (Quaternary environmental change in drylands) and key human-environmental issues (such as geohazards and environmental challenges). We will not only explore terrestrial landscapes, but also consider the extra-terrestrial. 


Teaching and learning methods

The course is delivered though lecture classes (10 x 2 hour), which include discursive elements and a class-led discussion in the penultimate week, and supported by a further 10 hours made up of a day-trip fieldclass and 2x2 hour laboratory classes. Independent reading and study is essential. Reading lists and links to electronic resources will be provided on the virtual learning environment (currently Blackboard). You are encouraged to use the online discussion forum on to discuss common questions and ideas about the course and share useful resources. 

Feedback will be provided in the following ways during this course unit: Verbal feedback through Q&A, discussion and interactive activities within lectures, the fieldtrip and laboratory classes; verbal feedback on any course unit issue through consultation hours; online feedback via a discussion board; written feedback on the coursework report during semester; written feedback on the examination on Turnitin, which academic advisers discuss through personal tutorials.

Knowledge and understanding

  • Demonstrate knowledge of the importance, relevance and uniqueness of dryland environments
  • Identify, describe and explain key physical characteristics of and processes within drylands, with an understanding of how these have changed through time (from timescales of climatic cycles in the Quaternary to seasonal variability). 
  • Evaluate and explain of the effects of dryland environments on human populations and the impacts humans have on dryland environmental processes.


Intellectual skills

  • Apply critical thinking with respect to the importance of dryland environments within the Earth system. 
  • Demonstrate comprehension of how sources of data are used in answering questions about the nature and formation of dryland environments, including human-environment interactions.  

Practical skills

  • Use academic resources (readings and datasets) to demonstrate understanding (KU1,2,3) and critical thinking to develop an argument. 
  • Undertake design of field research tasks to address research questions, use field instruments and be able to collect samples.  
  • Operate analytical equipment in the geography laboratories. 

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Collate information, read critically, evaluate ideas, methods and datasets
  • Use of spreadsheets and numeric analytical skills 
  • Presentation skills for communicating to colleagues. 

Assessment methods

Formative Assessment Task       Length (word count/time)      How and when feedback is provided

Introductory blog post                 300 words max                         Online comment to blog. In office 
                                                                                                     hours / via email.

Class-led discussion            2 pages with diagrams,                   In the class from peers, lecturer and TA
                                             encourage bullet points 
                                            (600 words max). To guide 
                                             talking for 10 minutes, with 
                                             2 minutes for questions.  

Assessment task

(1) Coursework report:
note 7 page pro-forma for write-up guidance and placement of data plots and sketches is provided).

1400 (plus data plots, figure headings and bullet point annotations on sketches).

How and when feedback is provided
Written comments via Turnitin. Students can discuss further in office hours. 
Prior to examination and at the 15 working day guideline.

Weighting :

(2) (Open book) Examination:
Answer two questions from a wider choice.

Equivalent of 2 hour exam

How and when feedback is provided
Written comments via Turnitin. On return of grades as specified by programme team.

Weighting :

Recommended reading

Key readings will be given for each lecture, as well as extended lists to help with wider reading and revision. 
Course texts are (available through The University of Manchester library):

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

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 20
Practical classes & workshops 8
Seminars 2
Independent study hours
Independent study 170

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Abigail Stone Unit coordinator

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