Durham Geography’s research culture is designed to generate research that is both intellectually innovative and of wider public and societal benefit. Impact is an integral part of our work along with outreach, public engagement, knowledge exchange, and collaboration.
Learn more about research by our staff
Researchers across all levels of staff in Geography are pursuing dynamic, cutting-edge research. Below you can learn more about some of our on-going projects.
Durham Geography research has informed understanding of rates and patterns of previous and future coastal erosion
Further information on each of these projects can be found below.
Cities and Climate Change
Prof Harriet Bulkeley played a key part in the development of the UN-Habitat’s Guiding Principles for City Climate Action Planning. Used to develop and evaluate climate strategies at the city scale, the Guiding Principles shape how urban policymakers plan and deliver action for climate change across the world, helping cities reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to the impact of climate change and build climate resilience. By setting a global benchmark for what is needed to achieve effective and socially just climate action, the Guiding Principles and associated toolkit represent a step change in global policy arenas. Drawing on the evidence developed by Durham University research, it is the first framework to explicitly identify the critical importance of climate justice at the urban level and to capture the importance of fairness and inclusivity, offering support for cities at all levels of development.
By establishing that cities are critical to achievinglong-term global goals for climate action, Durham University research has challenged the orthodox focus on national and international scales within climate change agendas and has helped to establish what good climate action planning looks like.
Vegetation analytics and management along power line corridors
Durham University research using the high-resolution aerial survey technique LiDAR (light detection and ranging) has underpinned the development of commercial products for the management of vegetation along power line corridors. Vegetation management is a major challenge for power line operators worldwide, where encroachment can lead to major power outages. For example, in August 2003 a blackout related to a tree contact with a powerline impacted 50 million people in the northeastern United States and Canada. By establishing new ways of monitoring vegetation using LiDAR, and modelling species specific vegetation growth, the research has allowed power line operators to proactively manage vegetation to minimise future risks associated with vegetation infringement. Where networks can be many thousands of kilometers in length – there are almost 0.5 million kilometers of powerlines in the United States alone - significant savings can be made if areas of potential risk can be identified without a need to deploy people on the ground. Building on long-term research into remote sensing of vegetation, this project was based around Knowledge Transfer Partnerships between Durham and Network Mapping Group (NM Group), a world-leading provider of power line management services. The collaboration enabled NM Group to be first-to-market with a network-scale 3D power line risk assessment products that integrate multiple datasets to guide vegetation management (see: video). These resulting assessments are now used to provide proof of compliance with national clearance regulations, in addition to generating evaluations of future risks from infringement and falling trees. These products are now used extensively for conducting statutory powerline assessments in the US, NZ, Australia, and the UK, with vegetation analytics now comprising over 50% of annual turnover at NM Group.
Degraded water quality and floodwaters pose a significant threat to both people and ecology. Both of these pressures result from diffuse sources across the landscape that when concentrated in rivers or lakes can become problematic. To better understand diffuse pollution in river catchments, Durham researchers developed a model called SCIMAP (Sensitive Catchment Integrated Modelling And Prediction: https://scimap.org.uk). SCIMAP provides a framework to consider where in the landscape these pressures are coming from and hence where mitigation actions would be most effective. The model utilises digital elevation models, land cover maps, hydrological theory, and GIS analysis, and innovatively involves stakeholders in both the model development and its application (see: video). The outputs are maps of the relative risk of generating a ‘problem’ such as rapid runoff or pollutants at each location in a landscape, and then the likelihood of that ‘problem’ connecting to a particular river downstream and where problems may arise. SCIMAP is now employed widely to identify ‘hotspots’ that can supply pollutants, such as nitrate or fine sediment, into the river system; this knowledge is then used to support management and remediation decisions. Users of SCIMAP include the Environment Agency, which offers the model as part of its central modelling platform; all of the 46 Rivers Trusts that bring together stakeholders in every catchment in England and Wales; partners in the Catchment-Based Approach (CaBA) that provides a framework for modelling and managing all 100+ catchments in England and eastern Wales under the Water Framework Directive; and a diverse group of NGOs and companies with an interest in assessing and managing diffuse pollution.
Building resilience to earthquake and landslide hazard in Nepal
Earthquakes and their associated secondary hazards, such as landslides, are a major and recurring threat to lives and infrastructure in mountainous countries like Nepal. Whilst the shaking during an earthquake can trigger many thousands of landslides, as was witnessed after the devastating 2015 Gorkha earthquake in Nepal, the continuing impacts of landsliding can persist for far longer. Durham University research on earthquake and landslide hazard has been used to inform the preparedness planning for earthquakes and landslides in Nepal, and was put into practise in guiding the humanitarian response and reconstruction after the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. The research generated critical geospatial data, mapping where landslide impacts were located and modelling who was potentially at risk in the future (see: video). The research produced the only comprehensive assessment of landslides that occurred during and after the earthquake, a dataset which has been sustained and updated ever since. These data have underpinned the nationwide geohazard assessment which informs projects focused on relocation and reconstruction efforts led by the Government of Nepal. One example is the UK FCDO-funded project ‘Durable Solutions’ which has specifically focussed on providing support to geohazard affected communities since the earthquake: http://durablesolutionsnepal.org/. In planning for the next earthquake, Durham-led research has also developed an innovative ensemble of earthquake scenarios. These scenarios help to assess the likely scale and geography of future earthquakes impacts, which is essential for preparedness planning. The scenarios are now utilised by the United Nations, the Government of Nepal, and major international NGOs to underpin the national earthquake Emergency Response Preparedness Plan, which provides the basis for the response to the next major earthquake. This integration of science and humanitarian planning is unique among UN-led disaster preparedness efforts worldwide.
Durham University research, led by Prof Nicky Gregson, informed a switch in UK Government waste and recycling policy following the Government’s first major cross-department report on waste and resource recovery. By facilitating a shift away from waste disposal towards resource recovery, this important change in policy provides the foundation for a more circular economy. The research focused on the organisation of municipal waste processing and on ship-breaking as a major resource recovery sector. It highlighted the challenges that UK and EU materials recovery businesses faced in what are global markets for recyclable resources. A major problem it revealed was the tendency to produce low quality materials that failed to meet the need for high-quality resources by manufacturing sectors. Drawing on this research, Prof Gregson and the Durham team evidenced what must change if the UK is to transition to a more circular economy in which wastes become resources. In particular, the evidence highlighted the need to improve the quality of materials recovered from recycling and the need to move away from a system of recovery that measures success in terms of weight and the percentage of materials diverted from landfill. The Durham researchers lead the evidence report that argued for better understanding of the type, quality and volume of materials required by UK-based manufacturers and the need to segregate valuable materials amidst the complexity of discarded goods. This will ensure the economic stability of resource recovery and reduce the UK’s dependence on global export markets to recycle its waste. The shift in waste and recycling policy is not only important for the economic stability of the resource recovery sector but key to reducing the environmental impacts of waste by promoting reuse, remanufacturing and recycling.
COastal Behaviour and Rates of Activity (COBRA) is an ongoing collaborative research project between the Department of Geography and ICL Fertilisers. Our research is focussed on the coast of the North York Moors National Park, with particular interests between Skinningrove and Whitby. This stretch of coastline varies dramatically, with some of the UK’s highest near-vertical rock cliffs, soft glacial tills, extensive rocky foreshores and sandy beaches. Human modification of this coastline is recognised in its status as the North Yorkshire and Cleveland Heritage Coast, in part reflecting a history of mineral extraction that has supported the local and regional economy for several centuries. The coastline presents a fascinating natural laboratory for research into the geomorphology of coastal and hillslope processes in an area of considerable interest to many stakeholders. Our research is focussed around the application of cutting-edge monitoring and modelling to understand this coastal landscape. In particular we are interested in coastal erosion and evolution, rock slope failure, wide-area ground deformation monitoring both on- and offshore, high-resolution remote sensing, bespoke geotechnical testing, and real-time monitoring. The findings of our research and the approaches that we have developed since 2002 have wider application both on the UK coastline, but also into many other settings including mountainous regions, high latitudes, and the developing world.