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Study information

Earth System Science: The History of Our Planet

Module titleEarth System Science: The History of Our Planet
Module codeGEO1211
Academic year2019/0
Module staff

Dr Tom Roland (Lecturer)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

This module will provide you with an introductory understanding of the development of the Earth System over the past 4.5 billion years. The module examines the role of the Sun, the inner Earth, and the evolution of life, in shaping the Earth system and creating a world in which humans could evolve. It explores the causes of past climate changes on all timescales, with a special focus on the recent Quaternary ice age cycles (the last 2.5 million years).

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to provide you with an introductory understanding of how the Earth has developed as a system, what the key parts and processes in that system are, and what the key drivers of change in the system have been in the past. It provides an introduction to ‘systems thinking’ including the role of feedback processes in stabilising or destabilising our planet. Earth System Science: The History of our Planet aims to provide you with much of the background understanding required for a degree in Physical Geography.

Through active participation in the module, the aim is that you will further develop the following academic and professional skills:

  • systems thinking (being able to conceptualise a whole system and understand how it functions)
  • problem solving (developing own ideas with confidence, identifying and using appropriate sources of information, selectively collecting and collating appropriate information)
  • managing structure (identifying key demands of the task, setting clearly defined goals,  conceptualising central issues within the task, developing strategies to ensure individual progress)
  • time management (managing time effectively individually and in a group)
  • collaboration (respecting the views and values of others, taking initiative and leading others, supporting others in their work, maintaining group cohesiveness and purpose)
  • the application of critical analytical skills in relation to reconstructing the history of our planet

The teaching contributions on this module involve elements of research undertaken by module staff, such as work on the coupled evolution of life and the planet (Lenton), the reconstruction of Quaternary environmental changes (Jones), and an Earth system view of the Anthropocene (Lenton, Jones). Moreover, you are encouraged to undertake enquiry-led learning, specifically through the reading of research articles as well as lecture material.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Discuss the fundamental processes that have shaped the history of the Earth as a system
  • 2. Describe the relationships between different drivers of change and Earth system responses
  • 3. Identify how the evolution of life is related to the development of the Earth as a system
  • 4. Utilise both qualitative and quantitative approaches in understanding Earth system science

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Recognise and discuss the contested and provisional nature of knowledge and understanding
  • 6. Analyse and synthesise information and recognise relevance
  • 7. Develop a sustained and reasoned argument
  • 8. Recognise the difference between synthesised textbook knowledge and primary knowledge derived from research journals
  • 9. Differentiate between conceptual and empirical knowledge

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 10. Interpret qualitative and quantitative information
  • 11. Carry out simply quantitative calculations using appropriate formulae
  • 12. Undertake independent study using appropriate literature

Syllabus plan

The module divides into two parts: Deep time Earth system dynamics, and Quaternary Earth system dynamics.

The deep time Earth system dynamics component will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Birth of the Earth system
  • The origin of life
  • Solid Earth dynamics
  • The Gaia hypothesis
  • The faint young sun puzzle
  • The rise of oxygen
  • The snowball Earth hypothesis
  • Plants cool the planet
  • Oxygen regulation
  • Rolls of the dice: extinction events
  • Turmoil in the greenhouse: hyper-thermals
  • Descent into the icehouse.

The Quaternary Earth system dynamics component will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Palaeo-environmental reconstruction; archives and proxies
  • Climate change in the Quaternary
  • Human evolution and climate change in the Quaternary
  • Quaternary climate change in Europe and North America
  • The Quaternary in Asia and the Tropics
  • Interglacials – an analogue for the future?
  • Rapid climate change and the last deglaciation
  • Climate change and the present interglacial
  • The dawn of the Anthropocene
  • Climate change in the Holocene - societal impacts
  • The last millennium

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching33Lectures
Guided Independent Study40Reviewing web-based material located on ELE
Guided Independent Study77Reading and preparation for exams

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Sample exam questions set and discussed during lectures4 hoursAllDiscussion during lecture

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Examination10090 minutesAllWritten

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
ExaminationExaminationAllAugust Ref/Def

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to sit a further examination. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Lenton, T. ‘Earth System Science: A Very Short Introduction’ (OUP, 2016)
  • Lenton, T. and Watson, A. ‘Revolutions that made the Earth’ (OUP, 2011)
  • Langmuir, C. H. and Broecker, W. ‘How to Build a Habitable Planet: The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind’(Princeton University Press, 2012)
  • Holden, J. (ed.) ‘Physical Geography and the Environment’
  • Smithson, P. Addison, K. and Atkinson, K. ‘Fundamentals of the Physical Environment’
  • Lowe and Walker ‘Reconstructing Quaternary Environments’ (Longman Limited, 1997)

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Earth system science, climate, biosphere, geosphere, oceans, atmosphere, cryosphere, biogeochemical cycles, plate tectonics, Quaternary, human evolution

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


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Last revision date