Quaternary Environmental Change

Module summary

Module code: ENVI1152
Level: 5
Credits: 15
School: Engineering and Science
Department: Natural Resources Institute
Module Coordinator(s): Bruce Haggart



The Quaternary is the most recent geological sub-Era spanning the last 2.6m years. It was characterised by a series of ice ages interspersed with warmer periods, such as we are experiencing today. These climatic changes had far-reaching effects on environments on a global, regional and local scale. Investigating patterns and processes of past and present environmental change and appreciation of the linkages and feedbacks in natural environments are essential prerequisites to our understanding of likely future human-induced changes. This course will aim to equip students with the tools necessary to interpret environmental change in the recent past. It is therefore an important part of the training of modern geographers and environmental scientists.

Learning outcomes

On completing this course successfully you will be able to:

1 Show and appreciation of the major factors contributing to Quaternary environmental change and their interactions on different spatial and temporal scales.
2 Demonstrate an understanding of the importance of correlation using stratigraphic, biological or chronometric methods.
3 Demonstrate knowledge of Quaternary dating techniques and their use in correlation, calculating rates of change and assessing leads and lags in environmental systems
4 Demonstrate familiarity with current research, issues and debates within this fast-changing subject area.

Indicative content

The course is multidisciplinary in nature and draws on material from the interface between geography, environmental science, geology, botany, zoology, environmental chemistry and archaeology. The course content is divided into the following parts:

1. Mechanisms of climate change on Milankovitch and sub-Milankovitch timescales based on evidence from ocean sediments, ice cores and terrestrial stratigraphy.
2. Dating Quaternary environmental change: one topic taken from radiocarbon, potassium-argon, uranium series, amino acid and thermoluminescence dating techniques and incremental dating methods such as dendrochronology.
3. A regional study such as the Quaternary of SE England and the Thames terrace sequence.
4. Biological evidence for Quaternary environmental change: two topics taken from material including pollen, diatoms, foraminifera, ostracods, and coleoptera.
5. Changes in sea level including major factors influencing sea level on long, medium, and short timescales and a case study of recent sea-level change.
6. Case studies: two case studies will be used to illustrate how the integration of the above gives a more complete picture of environmental change; possible case studies include the Younger Dryas and the Holocene.

Teaching and learning activity

The course is designed around 12 contact periods, each of three hours' duration. All lectures use PowerPoint presentations and are supplemented by summary notes, PowerPoint handouts and suggested further reading via Moodle on the student portal. It will be made explicit in the course handbook and verbally during the teaching sessions that further reading around the subject is to be considered the norm rather than the exception.

In terms of QAA Geography benchmarks, the unit explores environmental change as a system (3.5) and directly addresses its spatial variation (3.3) on a variety of spatial and temporal scales (3.6) and its change through time (3.7). Understanding Quaternary environmental change and its causes is essential to our understanding of the natural environment before humans started to perturb the system. It is a fast-moving, dynamic, plural and contested area of study and by its nature is constantly changing relationships with other fields of study (3.9). It provides the basis of informed concern (3.12) about the Earth and its peoples and underpins attempts at sustainability and effective environmental management.

A seen examination will be employed to assess all learning outcomes whilst an essay will advise on learning outcomes 5 and 6.


Method of SUMMATIVE assessment: Examination
Outcomes assessed:1-4
Grading Mode (e.g. pass/ fail; %): %
Weighting % :50%
Passmark: 40%
Word Length:n/a
Outline Details: Seen 3 hour exam

Method of SUMMATIVE assessment: Essay
Outcomes assessed:4
Grading Mode (e.g. pass/ fail; %): %
Weighting % :50%
Passmark: 40%
Word Length:2500
Outline Details:Essay on recent developments in an area of Quaternary Science

Nature of FORMATIVE assessment supporting student learning:
Examination: Feedback and discussion in class
Essay: Comments on a draft essay