The Earth's Dynamic Systems

Module summary

Module code: ENVI1038
Level: 4
Credits: 30
School: Engineering and Science
Department: Natural Resources Institute
Module Coordinator(s): Bruce Haggart



The course is intended to provide an introduction to the physical, chemical and biological processes that operate within the Earth and on its surface, including the atmosphere and oceans, and the linkages that exist between them. In addition to being global in spatial scale there is an introduction to the temporal dimension with coverage both on geological tectonic timescales through to more recent climatic and environmental change over the last 3 million years of the Quaternary. The course aims therefore to introduce students to the concepts of spatial and temporal change and process interlinkages at different scales in order fully to understand the factors that influence the shape and composition of the Earth's surface, a prerequisite of effective environmental management. In essence, the course aims to provide a solid grounding in physical geography to enable progression at subsequent levels.

Learning outcomes

On completing this course successfully you will be able to:

1 Demonstrate a knowledge of the structure of the Earth and its major topographic features;
2 Show an understanding of the broad course of Earth history including the last 2.6 million years of the Quaternary Ice Ages;
3 Show an awareness of the main processes that act within and at the Earth’s surface, its atmosphere and oceans;
4 Demonstrate an understanding of how these processes are observed and measured;
5 Show an appreciation of how these major processes interact at a variety of spatial and temporal scales;
6 Understand how scientists use knowledge of these dynamic processes to inform effective environmental management.

Indicative content

The course is divided into 6 sections:

(i) Earth Systems: Earth’s structure, rock types and formation, the rock cycle, the theory of continental drift and plate tectonics, tectonic landscapes.
(ii) Marine Systems: oceans and circulation; coastal processes (waves, tides, nearshore currents, sediment transport); coastal environments (rocky coasts, beaches, mudflats and saltmarshes); coastal change (sea-level change).
(iii) Atmospheric Systems: global energy budget; heat and moisture in the atmosphere (stability and instability); winds and atmospheric motion; weather forming systems; geomorphology and wind.
(iv) Biological Systems: the biosphere, terrestrial and aquatic biomes; biogeography, spatial and temporal patterns, processes and distributions of plants and animals.
(v) Geomorphological and Hydrological Systems: weathering, chemical and physical weathering; slope processes and landform evolution; sediments and sedimentation; catchment hydrology (precipitation, evaporation, groundwater, runoff, stream flow); hillslope hydrology and geomorphology (rain splash, sheet flow, piping, gullying, soil erosion); rivers and fluvial landscapes (water flow in alluvial channels, channel adjustment and dominant discharge, main type of alluvial channel); glaciers and glacial landscapes (glacial mechanics, sediments and landforms); periglacial processes and permafrost.
(vi) Earth Systems and Time: climate change (change through geological time, the Quaternary Ice Age); types of evidence (physical and biological); mechanics and concepts of climate change (role of plate tectonics, Milankovitch, and humans in climate change).

Teaching and learning activity

The course is designed around 24 contact periods each of three hours’ duration. Most of the course is by delivered through lectures and practical sessions based on key subjects and concepts outlined in the course content above. All lectures use PowerPoint presentation and are supplemented by summary structure, notes and suggested further reading via Moodle on the Student portal. Practical exercises are designed to reinforce concepts introduced in lectures through manipulation, display and interpretation of primary data.

QAA Geography Benchmarks are met and are central and integral to the course. The unit is based on a systems approach (3.7) and gives examples (atmospheric, Earth, marine and hydrological) of how processes interact and show spatial and temporal variation (3.3, 3.4, 3.5). The practical exercises provide an introduction to analysis and interpretation (3.12) of geographic information. The students are also made aware of how variation caused by differences in geology, surface processes and change through time can create distinct environments and landscapes which impart a distinct sense of place (3.6). Lastly, throughout the course, emphasis is made about how knowledge of the Earth’s systems is fundamental to effective environmental management (3.15)


Methods of SUMMATIVE Assessment:Examination.
Outcome(s) assessed by summative assessment: 1-6
Grading Mode:Numeric.
Weighting % 50%
Pass Mark: 40%
Word Length: n/a
Outline Details: Seen 2 hour exam.

Methods of SUMMATIVE Assessment: Practical Portfolio 1.
Outcome(s) assessed by summative assessment :3,4,5.
Grading Mode:Numeric.
Weighting % 25%
Pass Mark: 40%
Word Length: n/a
Outline Details: Portfolio of paper-based exercises on atmospheric systems.

Methods of SUMMATIVE Assessment: Practical Portfolio 2.
Outcome(s) assessed by summative assessment:3,4,5
Grading Mode: Numeric.
Weighting % 25%
Pass Mark: 40%
Word Length: n/a
Outline Details: Portfolio of paper-based exercises on physical geography.

Nature of FORMATIVE assessment supporting student learning:
Examination: Feedback and discussion in class
Practical portfolio 1: Workshop sessions in class
Practical portfolio 2: Workshop sessions in class