David Thomas is a geomorphologist by training and pursues research interests in arid environmental systems, Quaternary climate and environmental change, and contemporary and future climate change and development. His current live projects include research into climate and landscape change in central southern Africa and northern Arabia, and the impact of past environmental changes on early human use of drylands.
He was elected Professor of Geography and a Professorial Fellow of Hertford College in 2004. He gained his BA, Cert.Ed. and D.Phil. at Oxford (1977-84). In the intervening years he progressed from Lecturer to Professor of Geography (1994) at the University of Sheffield, where he was also director of The Sheffield Centre for International Drylands Research. He holds, or has held, a number of senior positions within the research community including Vice President of the Royal Geographical Society (2002-5) and Chair of the British Geomorphological Research Group (2002-3). He has sat on Royal Society and Geological Society committees and is a Director of the CHANGES (Carbon, Hydrology and Global Environmental Systems) research collaborative funded by UNESCO, ICSU, IUGS, and IGCP. He is currently leader of IGCP project 500 (Dryland change, past present future), Geography and Earth Sciences editor of the Journal of Arid Environments and is on the editorial book of a number of other journals and book series. His books include the highly acclaimed The Kalahari Environment (CUP, 1991, with Paul Shaw), and Desertification: Exploding the Myth, (Wiley, 1994, with Nick Middleton).
To date David has been principal or co-investigator on research grants totalling c.£6.5 million, funded from sources including UK research councils (NERC, ESRC), the Royal Society, the Leverhulme Trust, and other agencies and charities. He has authored over 80 articles in peer-reviewed journals. He co-authored both editions of the World Atlas of Desertification (Edward Arnold, 1992 and 1997, with Nick Middleton), and is editor of Arid Zone Geomorphology (Wiley, 1997), the leading textbook on dryland geomorphology, for which a third edition is now in press. In 2000 he co-edited the third edition of The Dictionary of Physical Geography (Blackwell).
His research interests have generated working links with scientists in many countries, with links to South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and the United Arab Emirates particularly active at present. His activities have been recognised by the award of an Honorary Professorship at the University of Cape Town (2006) and in 2005 the first Oman-Thesiger Research Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society.
He has given numerous plenary and key note addresses at major international conferences, and has supervised 30 successfully completed doctoral theses and is currently supervising 6 DPhil students.
He is a member of the Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies sub-panel (C17) for the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF2-014) assessment. He was also a member of the Geography and Environmental Studies sub-panel (H-32) for the 2008 UK Research Assessment Exercise and has been involved in similar exercises in Estonia and Sweden.
David's current research interests are in the areas of dryland environments, climate and environmental change, placing particular emphasis on the value of rigorous fieldwork, backed up with appropriate laboratory, analytical and modelling methods. Many field seasons have been spent working on Quaternary environmental change and aeolian process questions in and around the margins of deserts in Africa and other continents. This contributed to a growing awareness of the power of modern environmental changes, especially those linked to human actions, an interest that in recent years has expanded to include collaborative research with social scientists.
Specific research themes currently being investigated are:
Quaternary environmental changes in drylands and the low latitudes during the last glacial cycle
This long-running theme involves collaborative research with other institutions and funding from a range of sources including NERC, the Royal Society and the Leverhulme Trust. A core component of investigations is to better understand the timing and forcing mechanisms responsible for significant desert expansions and contractions in the subcontinent. Better interpretations are vital if improved data sources as inputs to GCMs are to occur and enhanced predictions of future changes are to be achieved.
Sampling late Quaternary sediments in NE Botswana for OSL dating.
Recent investigations have focused on the stabilised dune fields within the Kalahari sedimentary system and in the Namib on the shoreline systems of former lakes within dryland Africa, and on dune systems in the UAE. Research links have also led to investigations in other areas including China, where activities have focused on producing chronologies of loess accumulation, Iran, Kuwait, USA and Turkmenistan.
Current activities focus on producing better-resolved records of environmental dynamics and their appropriate interpretation as records of climate change. The application of OSL dating, via OLDLAB, to dune and lake sediments is a major research input, involving rigorous fieldwork and lab applications. New initiatives focus on the palaeoenvironmental records of the Upper Zambezi system, Zambia, and the links between environmental change and human use of the landscape in the Middle Stone Age in central southern Africa.
This work has attracted marked media attention.
The floor of the Makgadikgadi basin in the Kalahari is part of an old lake basin. As well as palaeoenvironmental investigations, the region is replete with uninvestigated MSA artefacts that are forming part of a new study of the relationships between environmetal change and human evolution.
In the United Arab Emirates mega dune ridges represent a record of aeolian accumulation that is a result of significant environmental changes in the Late Quaternary. Quarrying of sand for construction presents a unique opportunity to analyse dune interior structures, and to sample for OSL dating in order to develop a record of landscape development in response to climate change.
Climate Change Impacts
From 2002-5 David was the principal investigator on a major research project funded by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. The project investigated how natural resource-dependant societies in the developing world, particularly southern Africa, respond and adapt to climatic variability and shocks such as drought and floods, and how these responses may better inform an understanding of likely 21st century responses to global warming-induced climate change. This was a truly interdisciplinary project that brought together social and environmental scientists including climate and vegetation modellers. Key outcomes included work on learning processes in adaptation, changing use of ecosystem resources, and equity and justice issues. A major news item was published in Nature (12 April 2007) on this research. Since 2006 he has been a co-director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research Programme 4, which focuses on climate change and development. In particular, he is responsible for projects investigating the impact of development programmes on the ability to cope with and adapt to climate change in Africa.
Work on adaptation to climate change is also addressing landscape responses in the low latitudes. This is combining models derived from dune dynamics process studies, climate modelling and ecosystem dynamics. A recent paper in Nature has shown the potential value of combining this modelling approach with an understanding of past environmental dynamics to explore possible 21st century environmental changes. A new Royal Society grant is facilitating a new collaboration between Oxford and the University of Cape Town to explore methods and approaches to model landscape responses to future climate changes in Africa.
Community actions in restoring degraded drylands: a village group involved in gully restoration in Limpopo Province, South Africa, an area in which doctoral research is currently being supervised.
David Thomas is a lead expert for the UK Government Foresight Project: Global Environmental Migration.
Selected Research Projects
- DO4 Models: Dust Observation
Funded by NERC and in collaboration with Prof. Richard Washington, Dr Giles Wiggs, the University of Sheffield and Imperial College London (2010-2014).
- Floods and droughts: environmental dynamics in the Upper Zambezi Valley
Funded by The Leverhulme Trust and in collaboration with Dr Sallie Burrough and Prof. Kathy Willis (Dept. of Zoology, Oxford) (2010-2013).
- Palaeolithic mega-lakes and early occupation of the Kalahari
Funded by the Boise Fund and in collaboration with Dr Sallie Burrough.
- African palaeoclimate: the dating of palaeo-shoreline deposits and other geomorphic features, in Southern Africa, associated with past changes in surface hydrology
In collaboration with Dr Richard Bailey; financial support from NERC.
- Detailed chronologies of aeolian system development in northern Arabia
Funded by the RGS and NERC, with Professor Andrew Goudie, Professor Adrian Parker (Oxford Brookes), Dr Richard Bailey, and postgraduates.
- Tyndall: Research Programme 4: Climate change and development
In collaboration with Professor Richard Washington, Professor Kate Brown (University of East Anglia), and Dr Henny Osbahr (University of Reading); Financial support from Tyndall Centre (2006-2009).
- Chronology, adaptation and environment of the Middle Palaeolithic in northern Africa.
In collaboration with Dr Geoff Duller (Aberystwyth), Libyan Palaeolake Project, Dr Simon Armitage (formerly PDRA, now lecturer at Royal Holloway); Financial support from NERC EFCHED programme; D.Phil. Students: Sallie Burrough (2002-2006).