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GEOG3048 Desert Landscapes: Modelling and Measuring Aeolian Systems

Module Overview

Some of the biggest uncertainties in climate change predictions come from our lack of understanding of the impact of some of the smallest airborne dust particles. These dust particles are transported between continents from some of the hottest and most unpopulated regions on our planet, and potentially end up fertilising tropical rain forests or ocean algal blooms. Yet, even in the harshest of desert environments, vegetation or bacteria may still exist, and help to shape the windy landscapes that they reside in. Landscapes where wind-blown sand forms some of the most exquisite, self-organised patterns visible on satellite images and recognisable on other planets.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

To enhance enthusiasm for physical geography by exposing students to wind-blown (aeolian) processes and change present in desert environments, and developing their interpretation and analytical skills through the use of a self-directed landscape study. Students will develop an appreciation of the temporal and spatial scales of desert landscape dynamics, as well as developing their generic quantitative and presentation skills and gain valuable employability skills through the modelling component.

Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Identify key processes and controls associated with aeolian landscape development (A1, GA7)
  • Work in an efficient and productive way in a small group environment (D4, GD7)
  • Analyse, calculate and solve aeolian process problems (C1, GC4)
  • Find and interpret scientific literature (D1, GD6
  • Recognise and interpret the variation of temporal and spatial scales associated with aeolian bedforms, landforms and landscapes (A2, GA6)
  • Distinguish and compare similarities and differences in process and form under different environmental settings (B1, GB4)
  • Formulate and articulate relative merit and reasoning behind the use of geomorphic models (B2, GB2)
  • Manipulate aeolian data and apply it in problem solving (C2, GC5)
  • Operate a simple desert dune model using computer techniques (C3, GC1)
  • Appreciate and articulate underlying geomorphic principles in dryland settings (A3, GA10)
  • Use computational skills and apply them to computer modelling techniques (D2, GD4, GD5)
  • Articulate scientific knowledge to peers (D3, GD3)


In this module you will get the chance to be transported to some of the most remote places on Earth, investigating a dune field of your choice through a user-friendly, bespoke model, with an easy to use GUI (graphical user interface). Just press ‘go’ and see dunes evolve, enabling you to explore aeolian system response to environmental or climate drivers at the landscape scale. Additionally, this year sees the introduction of hands-on lab experiments where you will be able to initiate dune avalanches in the new Geography and Environment Avalanche Facility. Alongside lectures, computer help sessions and avalanche labs, a number of interactive workshops will let you practise your employability skills of consulting on the dust potential of different playa surfaces, how complex dune patterns on Mars might have arisen and where future rover missions should explore. If you are curious about some of the landscapes on our planet that are the most beautiful, least studied and most susceptible to climate change, then this module is for you. If you want to see what the surface of the dustiest place in the US is really like, or create computer modelled dune patterns, or just get some desert sand under your fingernails in the lab, then this module is for you. The study of desert landscapes has always had broad multidisciplinary appeal, and this module is suitable for geographers, environmental scientists, physicists, geologists, musicians and anyone interested in understanding wind-blown worlds.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

The teaching methods employed will consist of a series of lectures, a number of computer help sessions for the individual project, workshops, laboratory experiments in the Geography and Environment Avalanche Facility and an exam. More specifically the module will be divided into three distinct sections. During the first weeks of the semester desert landscapes and the aeolian processes which shape and change landforms and landscapes will be covered in detail, including larger scale sand dunes and sand seas. During this section students will identify a sand sea of their choice, which will form the basis of a self-directed project. They will then make use of a user friendly dune modelling interface to explore research questions related to the sand sea project. The second component of the course explores landscape interpretation, including techniques to address management issues and examine how desert landscapes change through time, their response to climate fluctuations, ways in which we can use ancient landscape records to further our understanding of modern processes, and how earth-based knowledge allows us to interpret aeolian landforms on other planetary bodies. Finally in the third section, practical applications, how do these particles move, what impact does dust have on a changing environment, when will a dune be a hazard and what makes it avalanche. The teaching methods employed will consist of a series of lectures, a number of help sessions for the individual project (60%, 3000 word limit) and an end of unit exam (40%, 2 hours). There will also be a number of formative workshops where students will get to work on problems in small groups and present their findings. Student comments from 2017 relating specifically to some of the learning activities you will experience on this module: 'Having an independent report is a really good way to develop your understanding. It also means you can explore the aspects of the module that interest you most, or draw in new ideas.' 'I particularly enjoyed being able to explore and model in Matlab. I believe I have gained deeper insight into environmental modelling and have gained a useful skill from taking this module. Overall, I found the lectures to be of good quality and I was able to explore an area of modelling of my choosing as I was supported by the wealth of materials that were available on Blackboard.' 'The variety of teaching methods not just lectures but computer workshops and classroom workshops. The small class size also allowed for much greater interaction with the lecturer.'

Independent Study120
Total study time150



MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (3000 words) 60%
Exam  (2 hours) 40%


MethodPercentage contribution
Exam 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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