Landscape dynamics

The study of Landscape Dynamics is the story of how our planet has developed from the depths of geological time through to more recent history. Incorporated within this are the active and ongoing processes which act to shape our dynamic landscape and pose challenges to human activities.

A close-up photo of an erupting volcano.
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In our research at the Department of Geography, we specialise in four core research themes: landscape development, active tectonics, natural hazards, and Quaternary palaeo-environments.


Research themes

Landscape Development

We use our expertise in remote sensing, chronology, modelling, geochemistry and sedimentology to understand fundamental aspects of landscape development and functioning, concentrating on key aspects of earth surface processes. In what ways, and at what rates, do landscapes develop? How do the magnitudes and frequencies of different events modulate erosion and sedimentation? 

Example Research Project: Dr Darrel Swift - Origin of Overdeepened Bedrock Landforms beneath Ice Sheets and Glaciers

There is renewed interest in glacial erosion because it presents an important safety consideration for the siting of geological repositories for the long-term storage of radioactive waste. In particular, the ability of glaciers and ice sheets to produce deep erosional basins in bedrock beneath the ice is well-known and documented. For many countries, proposed siting areas for waste storage include areas that will be subject to future glaciation.

The formation of these “overdeepened” bedrock basins remains incompletely understood (Cook and Swift 2012). Previous work has assumed that they are distinct from glaciofluvial forms, such as tunnel valleys, but new bedrock topography datasets for present and former ice sheets frequently reveal channel-like erosional bedrock landforms in regions of low-lying topography that are difficult to attribute to purely glacial erosion processes. This uncertainty about the origin of these features prohibits understanding of the potential implications of future glaciation for the siting and safety of storage facilities for radioactive waste.

Under the guidance of Dr Darrel Swift and Dr Stephen Livingstone, this Natural Environment Research Council-funded CASE studentship project is developing and applying morphological analyses to these landforms to test likely formation hypotheses and to provide quantitative data that can be used to develop and challenge numerical models. These will be used to provide insight into future landscape evolution. The project builds on recent mapping and analysis of similar landforms beneath the present ice sheets by developing new morphological analyses and extending the analyses to landforms in formerly glaciated settings.

Through collaboration with Nagra (the Swiss National Cooperative for the Disposal of Radioactive Waste), for whom the insights provided by this study will be extremely valuable, the project has unique access to bedrock topography datasets for Switzerland. The project also benefits from novel multi-disciplinary nuclear research expertise at Sheffield, which includes collaboration between staff in the Department of Geography and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.


Active Tectonics

How do faults behave, and what are the controls on changes through time and location? What is the probability of triggering large landslides, and what processes are involved?  and luminescence chronology to understand the controls on natural tectonic, volcanic and landslide-related processes, and the threat these represent for at-risk populations.Fault complexity, and implications for seismic hazard assessment.

Example Research Project: Professor Ed Rhodes and Dr Rob Bryant - Rapid Recovery of Topographic Data after the Mw 7.8 Kaikoura Earthquake of 2016, New Zealand.

Early in the morning of 14th November 2016, a Mw 7.8 earthquake occurred in the South Island of New Zealand, the largest to strike the region in over 100 years. The epicentre was located 9 km north of Culverden, and rupture propagated northwards in a complex pattern along a series of faults (both mapped and previously unmapped), producing dramatic surface ruptures (more than ~10m of displacement), widespread landsliding between Kaikoura and Blenheim, and two fatalities. The earthquake was remarkable for its magnitude and its complexity: it ruptured at least 12 faults with both strike-slip and thrust motion and displayed large variation in slip over short wavelengths. But it also generated a vast amount of valuable data. This is due to the area's extensive network of monitoring instruments - such as seisomographs and GPS stations - as well as the ready availability of topographic and spatial information about the region affected by the earthquake.

The earthquake is probably the largest event of its kind to occur under such well-instrumented conditions. The project involves the collection of high resolution topographic data using terrestrial ground-based lidar, photogrammetry from drones and helicopter, field recording of offsets, and detailed recording of striations on fault surfaces. In addition, the project team has emplaced a network of single and dual channel GNSS stations to record post-seismic deformation. The team has undertaken a series of field visits by the team and are soon to undertake further fieldwork. The project will improve the scientific community's understanding of the processes that occur during large earthquakes, of the tectonic controls over fault slip and surface rupture, and how the geomorphic record is produced and evolves after the earthquake.


Natural hazards

Understanding the causes and effects of natural hazards from landslides to volcanic eruptions is an important branch of scientific research. How are landslides triggered? What controls the eruption of volcanoes, and are we able to improve our forecasting of eruptions? How can we reduce risk to threatened populations from these hazards?

Example Research Project: Dr Andrew McGonigle, Dr Tom Pering, Dr Thomas Wilkes. Low cost remote sensing of volcanoes using smartphone sensors.

Volcanoes often release gases persistently from their summit. The measurement of these gases is therefore an important part of hazard monitoring, as gases, in the form of bubbles, are one of the major drivers of volcanic activity. Of these gases sulphur dioxide is the easiest to measure because of the low atmospheric background content and useful absorption features within the ultraviolet wavelengths of light.

The recent technological advances in volcanic gas remote sensing over the past decade, have revolutionised the way that volcanologists remotely sense volcanic gases. However, the high price of purchasing complete ultraviolet camera systems, the state-of-the-art in gas measurement,  at > £10k, has inhibited the widespread use of these instruments. At Sheffield, we have recently developed a low-cost alternative which revolves around the use of the Raspberry Pi micro-computer and associated, but adapted, camera. The low cost of this system (~£500) has opened up the use of ultraviolet cameras to areas with limited funding, bringing unprecedented benefits to the volcanic monitoring community.

At Sheffield, we are at the forefront of exciting new volcanological discoveries which are being made easier through use of low-cost ultraviolet technologies to probe and understand the dynamics of volcanic activity.

To find out more watch 'How can smartphones monitor volcanoes?' on YouTube.

Quaternary Palaeo-Environments and Climate

We apply our extensive expertise in the science of the environment, in particular sedimentology, geochemistry and geomorphology, to understand ancient landscapes, and the people who lived in them. We are interested in understanding the interplay between human and natural environmental change, how and where people evolved, and details of the many ancient landscapes that have come and gone over the Quaternary period (the past two million years).

Example Research Project: Prof Mark Bateman, Prof Ed Rhodes - Luminescence dating of sediments.

Time underpins many of the questions in this area. When did events occur? How long did they last? Sheffield has one of the leading Luminescence Dating facilities in the UK where we can take sediment and find out for how long it has been buried.

As part of this Mark Bateman from our group led on writing the Handbook of Luminescence Dating, a book designed to provide an accessible guide for archaeologists, geologists and Quaternary scientists who want to use luminescence dating in their research.


Staff and PhD students

A comprehensive list of our staff and PhD students who are working in this research area.

Research and academic staff

PhD Students

REF 2021 illustration

Research Excellence Framework 2021 results

The results demonstrate our research and impact excellence across a broad range of disciplines and confirm that our research is having a significant positive impact on lives across the globe.