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Professor Nick Drake

Professor Nick Drake

Nick Drake 

Tel: +44 (0)20 7848 2798
Office: Bush House North East Wing, Room 5.11 

Research Profile

'Geography is a great way of linking cutting-edge technology with encounters of people and place, both past and present.' 

Research interests
  • remote sensing, geomorphological analysis and geochemical analysis of landforms and processes of landform change in semi-arid and arid environments
  • the palaeoclimate and geoarchaeology of semi-arid and arid regions
  • the role of the Sahara-Arabian deserts in human evolution and ‘out of Africa’ dispersals.
  • soil erosion models and mixture models applied to remotely-sensed imagery.

Nick Drake obtained his BSc (Honours) in Environmental Science at Plymouth Polytechnic in 1983 and his Master of Applied Science in Geochemical Exploration from the University of New South Wales in 1986.

From 1986 to 1992 Nick worked as a research fellow conducting remote sensing research at the Department of Geography, Reading University. He worked on the development of improved algorithms for image classification and the characterisation of desert surfaces for geomorphological mapping using remote sensing. During this time he completed a part-time PhD entitled ‘Mapping and monitoring of surface cover types and processes in southern Tunisia using remote sensing’.

Nick joined King's Department of Geography in 1992, was made Reader in 2000 and a Professor in 2013. He has continued to develop his interests in theoretical and practical aspects of remote sensing while broadening his interests into geographical information systems and spatial modelling.

During the last few years Nick's interests have focussed on applying his expertise to arid lands and, in particular, the Sahara Desert. He is the leader of the Sahara Megalakes Project, an international project that involves nine universities and coordinates research on giant ancient lakes in Chad, Libya and Tunisia. He is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Arid Environments, Origini (Journal of Prehistory and Protohistory of Ancient Civilizations) and the Journal of Geology & Geosciences.

Nick has published 65 single and joint authored journal articles, 22 book chapters, 31 published conference proceedings and was co-editor of Spatial Modelling of the Terrestrial Environment published by Wiley in 2004. He is a member of:

  • the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetric Society
  • the Royal Geographical Society
  • the British Society for Geomorphology.

Nick has been most active in the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetric Society where he has organised a number of sessions for annual conferences, was invited to become a member of the organisation committee of their Special Interest Group in Modelling and Advanced Techniques in 1997, and was the group convenor from 1999 to 2004.

Nick now plays a prominent role in the Society for Libyan Studies. Between 2002 and 2006 he was a council member, from 2004 to the present has been on the society’s publications committee and in 2008 he was appointed the society’s Honorary Secretary.

Nick has played an active role in departmental, King's and University of London administration. He joined the University of London Subject Area Board (SAB) for Mathematical and Physical Sciences in 1998. He was invited to be Deputy Chair in 2004. In 2005 he was appointed to the University of London Senate and became the chairman of the SAB in 2006.


Nick Drake has research interests in remote sensing, GIS, spatial modeling, geomorphology, geoarchaeology and environmental change. He specialises in applying expertise in these areas to semi-arid and arid environments. His research interests in remote sensing involve both theoretical and practical aspects while research in GIS includes implementing spatial models of land degradation, soil erosion and wildlife distributions. 

His interests in climate change and geoarchaeology assimilates much of the above mentioned expertise by employing remote sensing and GIS to map the palaeohydrology of arid regions; using this information to locate geomorphological sites of likely geoarchaeological interest; and investigating them using field and laboratory methods in order to determine their paleaeo-environmental and archaeological significance.

This research is currently concentrating on past human occupation and climate change in the Sahara particularly the evidence provided by lacustrine sediments deposited by giant palaeolakes once located in the large closed basins of the Fezzan (Libya), the Chotts (Tunisia) and the Bodele (Chad). This research is coordinated by the Sahara Megalakes Project.

These Saharan megalakes provide information for furthering our understanding not only of the palaeoclimate of the Sahara but also African biogeography and palaeoanthropology. The Sahara Desert currently provides a formidable barrier to animal and hominid migration from central/southern Africa to Arabia and the Levant. However, there is abundant evidence that on several occasions in the past, creatures which evolved in central/southern Africa were able to populate adjacent landmasses, indicating that this barrier did not always operate.

Understanding the long-term climatic evolution of the Sahara region is therefore a particularly important question for biogeography and palaeoanthropology. By chance, the catchments of the three megalakes (Lake Megachad, Lake Megafezzan and the Chotts Megalake) link to form a corridor across the Sahara. Thus the palaeolake sediments they preserve can be used to determine whether there was previously a corridor of humidity across the Sahara by looking for evidence of synchronous lacustrine activity in all three basins.

Nick has recently expanded this work into the Arabian Desert as part of the Palaeodeserts Project.


Three minutes with Nick Drake - an interview

Were you fascinated by geography as a child?

Not to start with, I was more interested in geology, collecting rocks and minerals whenever I got the chance. When I was 12, I went on a trip to Ghana. We went up the Volta River in a speedboat and met some local fishermen who’d caught this enormous fish. They wanted to give us the fish, and stupidly, I took it – they must have been quite poor... I think that trip gave me a sense of adventure that I’ve wanted to replicate throughout my life. It was this that ultimately led me to geography.

What made you go into this field?

I was really interested in geology. I did a BSc in Environmental Science at Plymouth and took all the geology courses. And then I did a Master’s in Geochemical Exploration at New South Wales so that I could spend the rest of my life exploring the world looking for minerals. While I was there, I shared an office with a guy who was studying geography and it struck me that he had a good balance of university-based work and fieldwork. So that’s when I decided to go in this direction and did my PhD in Remote Sensing in the Geography Department at Reading University.

What has your research on the Sahara Megalakes Project revealed?

The Sahara Desert was home to some of the world’s largest freshwater lakes five to ten thousand years ago (and in previous interglacials). The project has investigated these lakes and has given us a better understanding of past climate change and the distribution of species, ecosystems and archaeology in the region.

Which countries have you travelled to whilst conducting your research?

Recently I have been to Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. The most interesting area is probably the Ubari Sand Sea in Libya. Logistically it’s tough to travel there. You have to take all your water and fuel with you, and spare vehicle parts. Hardly anyone has been there, so there’s a lot to be found. There are cliffs of lake sediments 30 metres high formed by a giant lake that at its maximum extent was the size of England.

Any travel mishaps?

Yes, lots – mostly with vehicles. Really you should travel with two vehicles in the desert in case anything goes wrong. I went on an expedition in Sudan where we could only get hold of one vehicle. We were only planning to travel about 80km from Khartoum and had a satellite phone so decided to risk it. Then, of course, the radiator on the vehicle broke down. One of the drivers managed to fix it by putting some tobacco inside – the tobacco expanded to plug up the holes – only to get a flat tyre shortly afterwards. At this point we decided it was time to go back to Khartoum.

What are you planning to do next?

I’m planning to do some research on the Chotts Megalake in Southern Tunisia. I’ll be focusing on climate change and the geological stuff, while the Italian researchers we’re travelling with will focus on archaeological remains.

What kind of things do you hope to find?

Lake sediments, stone tools, animal fossils, [Nick hands me some flat, sharpened stones] these sorts of things. They could be arrowheads or knives – and date from the time of early modern humans, that’s 40 to 140 thousand years ago.

What do you do in your spare time?

I don’t really have a lot of spare time! I write up my research... My family and I are going on a trip to Kenya over the summer though. We’ll spend a week on safari and then explore the Great Rift Valley. I couldn’t go on holiday and just laze on a beach!

Why should students choose to study geography for GCSE, A Level or a degree?

You should study geography because it’s an opportunity to understand the Earth’s environment and the way humans interact with it. And with this information you will be inspired to visit some amazing places. 


The Desert Migrations Project, Society for Libyan Studies, £6000 (PI)

LAMPRE: LAndslide Modelling and tools for vulnerability assessment PReparedness and REcovery management. European Commission Framework 7 Collaborative project 'Support to emergency response management'. €300,000 (Co-I, PI Bruce Malamud).

The Desert Migrations Project, Society for Libyan Studies, £7200 (PI)

Biogeomorphology of Riparian Systems: Space, Time and New Information Sources’ Leverhulme £150,000 (Co-I, PI Professor Angela Gurnell) 2008 
Expedition to the Libyan Sahara to investigate the stratigraphy of Lake Meggafezzan, Repsol Petroleum £18,000 (Co-PI with Prof. Mustafa Salem) 

Evidence rapid climate change in the Chad Basin revealed by Palaeolake Megachad, NERC Radiocarbon Analysis Facility £2,080 (PI with Charlie Bristow, Dick Grove and Simon Armitage) 

Cosmogenic dating of lithic procurement and manufacturing sites in the Fezzan, Libya. NERC Cosmogenic Isotope Analysis Facility £12,200 (PI with Christoph Schnabel, Tim Reynolds and Huw Barton). 

Palaeolake Megachad shoreline chronology: evidence for humid periods in the Sahara, Institute of British Geographers Peter Fleming Award, £7000 (With Charlie Bristow and Simon Armitage). 

Palaeo-hydrology and Palaeo-climate in the Fezzan Basin, Libya, Lybian Water Authority, 46'000 Libyan Dinars (£18,500). 

Evaluating Human Elephant Conflict in Northern Botswana using DMC Imagery, Census Data and Spatial Models, BNSC (DMC imagery with a value of £14,000). 

Optically Stimulated Luminescence dating of Fezzan Palaeolake sediments, Society of Libyan Studies, £2000 

Numerical modelling of industrial, biomedical and environmental flow processes, EPSRC JREI, £149,812, (Co-investigator with 7 others). 

Isotopic and Geochemical analysis of late quaternary gypsum duricrusts from the Fezzan, Southern Libya, School of Humanities, £750 

Parameter scaling and error propagation in a remote sensing and GIS based soil erosion model, BBSRC for the thematic program ‘Mathematics and Modelling of Agricultural Food Systems’, £100,620, (with J. Wainwright). 

Lake Tanganyika biodiversity project: special study on sediment discharge and its consequence, UNDP, $32,000 (with M. Wooster). 

Review of spatial and temporal methods for assessing land degradation, European Community, £4,000. 

Application of remote sensing and GIS technologies to land degradation studies, EU training and mobility of researchers, 53,294 ecu, (with A. Mizara). 

Investigating the origin of gypsum crusts in Tunisia and Namibia, School of Humanities small grant, £450. 

Establishing the surficial distribution of gypsum duricrust and investigating the origin of gypsum in the Namib Naukluft Park, Namibia and Tunisian Atlas mountains, NERC Isotope Geoscience Laboratory, analysis of samples (equivalent to £3,900).

PhD topics
  • Estimating dune field sand flux using remote sensing
  • Agent-based modelling of modern human dispersal across the Sahara
  • The use of historical remote sensing records to evaluate deterministic models of dune field evolution in the Bodele Depression, Chad
  • Evaluation of dust source regions in the Sahara using Earth Observation data
  • Mapping the paleohydrology and archaeology of Asian deserts to evaluate models of hominin dispersal into these regions
PhD students


Principal supervisor

P. Breeze, 'GIS analysis of the effectiveness of human and animal dispersal routes out of Africa' (NERC) (2011- )

Second supervisor

N. Yan, 'Dune landscape transformations driven by vegetation changes in inland deserts, northern China.' (Centre for Doctoral Studies studentship) (2010- )


Principal supervisor

2011 T. Abushufa, 'Mapping and monitoring Saharan dust sources using MODIS' (self funded)

2015 A. Ayanlade, 'Monitoring land use and habitat change in the Niger Delta' (Nigeria Government)

2007 C. Gibbons 'Managing human-elephant conflict in the Chobe National Park, northern Botswana' (NERC/ESRC)

2006 S. Jiang, Regional scale modelling soil erosion in the Lake Tanganyika catchment (ORS/K.C. Wong Educational Foundation).

2003 M. Morkech, 'Error propagation in a GIS-based soil erosion model' (Aleppo University)

2003 E. Symeonakis, 'Modelling African soil erosion on a daily basis using remote sensing and GIS' (State Scholarship Foundation of Greece)

2003 A. Vafeidis, 'Remote sensing and GIS modelling of the effects of fire on soil erosion in Greece' (British Council)

2002 N. Hashem, 'High spatial resolution erosion modelling and flow routing in a GIS' (Aleppo University)

2000 M. Wang 'Remote sensing of bush encroachment' (Normal University, Taiwan)

1999 X. Zhang 'Global scale soil erosion modelling using remote sensing and GIS' (ORS/K.C. Wong Educational Foundation)

Second supervisor

2014 J. Francke, 'Development and application testing of ultra-deep ground penetrating radar' (self funded)

2009 E. Tarnavsky, 'Scaling remote sensing data for policy relevant desertification modelling in North Africa' (self funded)

2008 F. Ali 'River channel change in Bangladesh' (NERC/ESRC)

2008 T O’Loingsigh, 'Identification of the sources of windblown mineral dust within the Lake Eyre Basin, Australia' (occasional student, University of Monash)

2008 G. Petropoulos 'Estimation of evapotranspiration using remote sensing' (State Scholarship Foundation of Greece)

2004 A. Smith, 'Improved estimates of NO 2 & other nitrogenous gases from African savanna burning' (NERC)

2001 M. Rincon-Romero, 'Modelling the sensitivity of Colombian hillsides to land use change' (self funded)

2000 C. Steele 'Remote sensing of vegetation physiology' (KCLA)

1997 F. Eckardt 'Mixture modelling for mapping gypsum in Namibia from Landsat TM data' (with Dr K.H. White and Prof. A. Goudie, funded by NERC Ph.D. studentship)


5SSG2043 Environmental Remote Sensing

The module aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of environmental remote sensing. To achieve this students will learn the fundamental characteristics of electromagnetic radiation and how it interacts with earth surface materials. Students will then learn how this radiation is recorded using a wide variety of instruments (e.g. cameras, scanners, RADAR) on a wide range of platforms (e.g. aeroplanes, satellites). The course will then consider the diverse array of applications of remote sensing in geography including topics such as climate change and global warming, tropical deforestation, urbanisation, land use change and geomorphology.

5SSG2053 Principles of Geographical Enquiry II

This module builds on what you did in the first year in PGI I. The aims of this module are to provide a grounding in spatial analysis of geographic data, to introduce you to Geographical Information Systems (GIS), to continue your statistical methodology training from year one and finally, work to prepare you for your Independent Geographical Study (IGS) which you will be doing in your third year. Overall, it is designed to get you to not only think across the human/physical divides in Geography, but to provide you sets of concepts, skills and methods that work to link and cut across this divide.

6SSG3025 Desert Environments

This module aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the characteristics of desert environments, the environmental problems found in these regions, and the techniques that can be used to assess and mitigate them, using examples from both arid and semi-arid environments. The course enables students to gain an understanding of the important climatic, hydrological, geomorphological and ecological processes that occur in deserts, and examine the ways in which they are affected by human activities. The course considers environments that experience high temperatures and scarcity of water which are highly susceptible to a diverse set of anthropogenic influences leading to desertification. It considers ways to monitor the effects of desertification and ways to rectify these effects. It then considers the policy options for management of deserts, concentrating on the requirements of the UN Desertification Convention.

6SSG3070 (undergraduate) 7SSG5176 (masters) Global Environmental Change I: Past and Present

The specific aims of the module are to review the nature and processes of terrestrial environmental changes experienced during the period of existence of human societies up to and including the present, focusing on changes to the climate, terrestrial carbon cycle, and to Earth's landcover and landuse. By covering variability and change in these areas of the Earth system the module will provide the scientific background necessary to better understand the causes and consequences of environmental changes in isolation and as a whole, whether they be paleo-environmental changes, studies of the contemporary environment, or future projections.

5SSG2049  Methods in Physical Geography

Specific aims of the module are to provide an understanding of research methodologies in physical geography, including their strengths and weaknesses. Equip students with a range of skills to undertake field and modelling research. Prepare students for undertaking the Independent Geographical Study.

At the completion of the module students should be able to understand different methodologies that may be available for physical geography research and the impacts they have on the possible outcomes of that research. Apply GIS and remote sensing techniques to practical projects. Understand different approaches to data analysis. Apply simple statistical and/or numerical modelling approaches. Have some of the necessary research methodology tools to carry out their Independent Geographical Study successfully

5SSG2046 Fieldwork in Physical Geography

The fieldtrip aims to encourage an active engagement with the external world through experiential learning beyond the formal classroom. This provides an opportunity to apply conceptual and methodological skills learned elsewhere in the curriculum to more complex field environments. The module encourages students to develop the ability to identify a problem or research question and to design appropriate methodologies in the field. In doing so it also provides an opportunity to examine ethical aspects of the research process and to experience and understand the processes involved in team working.

Impact , innovation and outreach

My Saharan research has received significant media and public interest. In October 2009 aspects of my Saharan research featured in the National Geographic Magazine. The same year I was an advisor and contributor to a History Channel Television episode of the series 'How the Earth Was Made' that was dedicated to the Sahara and aired in December 2009. In 2010 I contributed to a National Geographic TV programme called the 'Worlds Oldest Child' that focused on the dispersal of early modern humans into North Africa, as well as advising on the Deserts -Life in a Furnace program of the BBC Human Planet series that aired on BBC 1 in 2011. In 2012-13 was involved in a BBC2/Discovery Channel series called 'Orbit: The Earth's Extraordinary Journey' where I advised on and contributed to the Saharan paleoclimate change aspects of the program.

The growing impact of this work has meant that during the last few years I have been invited to present my research to numerous UK and international conferences/workshops/meetings:

April 2014 Invited lecture at the Green Arabia Conference, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Oxford.

April 2014 Conference session co-organisation and poster presentation at European Geophysical Union. Session entitled 'Late Quaternary palaeoenvironments of African drylands'

March 2014 Invited departmental seminar in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Oxford University.

October 2013 Invited lecture at the Fyssen Conference 'From Colonisation to Globalisation: Species Movements in Human History'.

June 2012 Invited lecture at the University of Oxford, Department of Archaeology Paleodeserts Workshop.

February 2012 Two invited seminars at the University of Tucson, Arizona, USA, one at the  School of Natural Resources and Environment and the other at the Office of Arid Lands Studies. 

March and June 2011 Two invited lectures at a series of workshops on Environmental Change in Prehistory. The research presented at these workshops is being developed into a paper on how climate change between 6.5 and 5 ka contributed to social change and the development of civilisations.

September 2010 Invited lecture at a conference on 'Pleistocene Ecological Change and the Evolution of Bird Migration System' at the Museum of Gibraltar.

July 2010 Invite lecture at a workshop entitled 'Africa from stages six to two: population dynamics and palaeoenvironments' held at Cambridge University.

March 2010 Invited lecture at a seminar series on 'Catastrophe and Adaptation: The Many Faces of Climate Change' held at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, USA. 

September 2010 Invited lecture at the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain annual conference in London. 

February 2010 Invited departmental seminar in the School of Geography, Oxford University.

November 2009 Invited lecture at the RGS/IBG popular lecture programme.

January 2009 Invited departmental seminars in the Archaeology Department of Cambridge University 

December 2008 Invited departmental seminar in the School of Geography, University of Bristol.

November 2008 Presented two invited papers at a conference on the Geology of Southern Libya; Libya Palaeohydrology of the Fezzan Basin and Surrounding Regions: the Last 7 Million, and 2) Years Evaluating Records of Saharan Palaeoclimate Change: Causes and Consequences (Revised and to be published in Salem M.J. (eds.) The Geology of Southern Libya. 

October 2008 Invited to present a talk on Remote Sensing of Saharan Dust Sources, at the NERC Quest Dust Working Group. The presented research has been combined with results of discussions and other research presented at the workshop and developed into a paper entitled 'Preferential dust sources and modelling emissions: a view from the ground' that has been submitted to Journal of Geophysical Research.


For a full list of publications, please see Nick's research profile.

Further details

Please see Nick's Research Staff Profile for further details.



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