[This post is aimed at current 3rd years (and MGeog students) who might still be finalising their decisions about semester 2 optional course units. Also current 2nd years who might be mapping out the pathway they want to take for the next two years.]
“I've been through the desert on a horse with no name It felt good to be out of the rain…”
Most people, even if they are not familiar with this Dewey Bunnell lyric, 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 in the 1970s and led to the first effort in 1977 to tackles this through the Plan of Action To Combat Desertification (PACD). 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. You’ll soon add Ralph Alger Bagnold to your list of desert Ralphs (Fiennes, playing a mysterious stranger recovering from a narrow miss with a crashing plane in a desert landscape of north Africa in Minghella’s 1996 dramitisation of The English Patient).
If you want to read something to whet your appetite whilst deciding whether you’d like to choose this option, Nick Middleton (presenter of ‘Going to Extremes’) has written an excellent little book ‘Deserts: A Very Short Introduction’.
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 and practicals 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, and decide for you ‘what makes the desert beautiful’, in the process of learning about it’s physical geography.
The course aims to provide an understanding of the physical characteristics of deserts and drylands. Why do they look as they do, and what processes are responsible for this? We will investigate geomorphological processes (both from the action of the wind and the action of water) and geomorphological features in the landscape (such as dunes, lake shorelines, gravel plains) and consider the interactions between wind, water, sediment and vegetation.
We will also dig into the past to understand something about the nature of past environmental conditions and changes in these regions over long (Quaternary timescales) in response to changing climatic conditions. Some desert regions have been appreciably ‘greener’ during points of the past. Within this part of the course you will develop a critical appreciation of some of the methods used to reconstruct environmental change, which links nicely with the second year module on Environmental Change and the third year module on Ice Age Earth.
The course also allows you a chance to consider the ways in which humans interact with dryland environments and particularly current and future pressures on natural resources and geohazards.
There will be a hands-on component with three practical sessions (sediments, water and making sand glow in a portable luminescence reader, which tells us how long since it was last exposed to light! – so a burial history), and if the logistics permitwe’ll go and see some (non dryland) sand dunes up by the coast near Formby…
If this sounds interesting to you, the course outline is available via University channels (Blackboard etc.) and I’d be happy to talk a little more to you about it. Follow snippets of interest with hashtag #DPPF2015 that I am posting on twitter (@AbiStone)