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Investigating controls on vegetation distribution in desert dune fields to better understand dune stability and migration (CENTA2-SGGE6-MCLA)

Project Description

The presence of vegetation in deserts plays a significant role in the stabilisation and migration of sand dunes. Vegetation stabilises dunes and promotes the accumulation of water and nutrients to support more vegetation, whilst a decrease in vegetation may result in destabilisation of sand, lost fertility and sand dune migration. There are several factors that may control the presence and abundance of vegetation: moisture, slope, aspect, salinity and wind erosion, thus vegetation may be an indicator for the relative role of these factors which themselves may vary spatially.

Most research into vegetation in arid regions is really only applicable to the locality of the study and a focussed effort to map vegetation over extensive areas of dune fields will gain a better understanding of the heterogeneity in causes of dune stability and migration. The spectral and temporal characteristics of remotely sensed satellite data provide a suitable tool to do this, offering the possibility to identify vegetation on the ground as well as supply environmental data such as precipitation and topography covering large scales. Species distribution models can use these data to make correlations on the presence and absence of the vegetation in relation to these controlling factors. Using sand seas in central Saudi Arabia, which is positioned on the margins of the Indian monsoon weather system and is an area where vegetation patterns are poorly understood; this project aims to develop a better understanding of vegetation distribution in sand seas with satellite mapping and species distribution models.

The aim is to give insights on unprecedented scales into the relationship between vegetation occurrence and dune field patterns. Understanding the present controls on vegetation will help with modelling the nature of the dune field in both past and predicted climates and help with present day management of migrating dunes, an issue in established agricultural areas.

Entry Requirements:

UK Bachelor Degree with at least 2:1 in a relevant subject or overseas equivalent.

Available for UK and EU applicants only.

Applicants must meet requirements for both academic qualifications and residential eligibility:

How to Apply:

Please follow refer to the How to Apply section at and use the Geography Apply button to submit your PhD application.

Upload your CENTA Studentship Form in the proposal section of the application form.

In the funding section of the application please indicate you wish to be considered for NERC CENTA Studentship.

Under the proposal section please provide the name of the supervisor and project title/project code you want to apply for.

Funding Notes

This project is one of a number of fully funded studentships available to the best UK and EU candidates available as part of the NERC DTP CENTA consortium.

For more details of the CENTA consortium please see the CENTA website: View Website.

Applicants must meet requirements for both academic qualifications and residential eligibility: View Website

The studentship includes a 3.5 year tuition fee waiver at UK/EU rates

An annual tax free stipend (For 2019/20 this is currently £15,009)

Research Training Support Grant (RTSG) of £8,000.


Aguiar, M.R., and Sala, O.E., (1999) Patch structure, dynamics and implications for the functioning of arid ecosystems, TREE 14 pp 273-277.

Aly, A.A., Al-Omran, A.M., Shahwan Sallam A., Al-Wabel M.I., and Al-Shayaa, M.S., (2016) Vegetation cover and change detection and assessment in arid environment using multi-temporal remote sensing images and ecosystem management approach, Solid Earth 7 pp713-715.

Bradley A.V, Haughan A.E, Al-Dughairi A, McLaren S.J., (2019) Spatial variability in shrub vegetation across dune forms in central Saudi Arabia. Journal of Arid Environments 161,72-84.

Couteron, P., (2001) Using spectral analysis to confront distributions of individual species with an overall periodic pattern in semi-arid vegetation, Plant Ecology 56 pp-229-243.

El-Keblawy, A., Abdelfattah M.A., Khedr A.H.A., (2015) Relationships between landforms, soil characteristics and dominant xerophytes in the hyper-arid northern United Arab Emirates, Journal of Arid Environments 117 pp 28-36.

McLaren, S.J., Al-Juaidi, F., Millington, A.C. and Bateman, M.D., et al (2009) Journal of Quaternary Science 24, 198-207.

Tsoar, H., (2005) Sand dunes mobility and stability in relation to Climate, Physics A 357 pp 50-56.

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