What controls rock falls in desert environments? Investigating the role of climate, seismicity and lithology on rock fall hazard and risk


What controls rock falls in desert environments? Investigating the role of climate, seismicity and lithology on rock fall hazard and risk


Project Description


Dr Sarah J. Boulton (University of Plymouth, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences) – Contact me

Dr Martin Stokes, SoGEES; University of Plymouth

Dr Michael Whitworth, AECOM

Dr Joshua Jones, AECOM


Project background

Landslides and rock falls are a global hazard, posing significant risk to infrastructure and populations (1). Yet it is still not possible effectively predict the location of future landslides (2). This is especially true in arid desert environments where limited information exists on the frequency and trigger mechanisms of such failures. For example, rock falls have been attributed to both climatic (3) and seismic (4) triggers but in many regions it is not clear what causes slope instability owing to a lack of spatial and temporal control on the deposits. Without such constraints, it is not possible to effectively develop hazard and risk strategies for regions where there is increasing pressure from development and climate change such as in the Middle East and parts of the US. This project will investigate this knowledge gap by comparing the Al Ula (Saudi Arabia) and Wadi Rum regions (Jordan). These are both UNESCO world heritage sites undergoing intense tourism-related development that have significant rock fall hazard, but where the driving mechanism causing observed collapses is unknown (5).

Research methodology

The project will combine remote sensing, field observations and dating methods using cosmogenic isotopes (10Be/14C) and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) to build a database of significant rock falls in the study regions. Remotely sensed and field data will determine distributions, volumes, runout distances and timings of rock falls.  These data will provide inputs for spatial analysis and modelling rock fall trajectories, identifying areas of particular density and concern. Collectively, data will test hypotheses for the different mechanisms causing rock fall triggering, therefore contributing to global efforts to understand better mass-wasting dynamics in a changing world.


The individual will join a team of international experts who will deliver training in remote sensing and GIS, field geomorphic techniques (geomorphic mapping, TruPulse, DGPS/drone surveys), engineering geology methodologies (slope stability, rock strength assessment, landslide susceptibility), dating (sample collection, preparation and geochemistry) as well as generic research skills.

Person specification

We are looking for a candidate who is confident in undertaking fieldwork abroad and can integrate data from different geological disciplines.  A geoscience degree is desirable.


  • Jones, J.N., Stokes, M., Boulton, S.J., Bennett, G.L., Whitworth, M.R.Z., 2020. Ongoing coseismic and post-earthquake landslide impacts on remote trekking infrastructure, Langtang Valley, Nepal. Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology and Hydrology. 53 (2), 159-166.
  • Jones, J. N., Boulton, S. J., Bennett, G. L., Stokes, M., & Whitworth, M. R. Z., 2021. Temporal Variations in Landslide Distributions Following Extreme Events: Implications for Landslide Susceptibility Modeling. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, 126(7). doi:10.1029/2021jf006067
  • Dorn, R. I. (2014). Chronology of rock falls and slides in a desert mountain range: Case study from the Sonoran Desert in south-central Arizona. Geomorphology, 223, 81-89.
  • Rinat, Y., Matmon, A., Arnold, M., Aumaître, G., Bourlès, D., Keddadouche, K., Porat, N., Morin, E., Finkel, R. (2014). Holocene rockfalls in the southern Negev Desert, Israel and their relation to Dead Sea fault earthquakes. Quaternary Research, 81(2), 260-273. doi:10.1016/j.yqres.2013.12.008
  • Gallego, J. I., Margottini, C., Spizzichino, D., Boldini, D., & Abul, J. K. (2022). Geomorphological processes and rock slope instabilities affecting the Al Ula archaeological region. In Geotechnical Engineering for the Preservation of Monuments and Historic Sites III (pp. 456-466). CRC Press.

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP and will start on 1st October 2023. The closing date for applications is 23:59 on 19th May 2023.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship, which covers fees, stipend (£18,622 p.a. for 2023/24) and research funding. Please note that all international awards have been made for our programme for 2023 so we will not be accepting applications from international candidates,
  • ARIES students benefit from bespoke graduate training and ARIES provides £2,500 to every student for access to external training, travel and conferences, on top of all Research Costs associated with the project. Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses.
  • ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion in all areas of its operation. We encourage enquiries and applications from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation and transgender status. Academic qualifications are considered alongside non-academic experience, and our recruitment process considers potential with the same weighting as past experience.
  • All ARIES studentships may be undertaken on a part-time or full-time basis, visa requirements notwithstanding
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor. To apply for this Studentship follow the instructions at the bottom of the page or click the 'apply now' link.
  • ARIES is required by our funders to collect Equality and Diversity Information from all of our applicants. The information you provide will be used solely for monitoring and statistical purposes; it will remain confidential, and will be stored on the UEA sharepoint server. Data will not be shared with those involved in making decisions on the award of Studentships, and will have no influence on the success of your application. It will only be shared outside of this group in an anonymised and aggregated form. You will be ask to complete the form by the University to which you apply.

Applications are open

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