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Study information

Reconstructing Past Environments

Module titleReconstructing Past Environments
Module codeGEO2230
Academic year2019/0
Module staff

Dr Dunia H. Urrego (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

This module provides a practical introduction into the study of past environmental change over the last 21,000 years in NW Europe. This was a period of tumultuous change, characterised by violent swings in climate as the Earth system responded to the end of the Last Glacial Cycle. At the same time, with the rapid evolution of human society and the expansion of early cultures across Europe, the role of anthropogenic activity in driving the evolution of the European landscape became ever more significant. Reconstructing the past history of climate change and human activity provides an invaluable insight into the role climate and anthropogenic activity has played in moulding the European landscape in terms of its physical and biological characteristics. This module will provide an overview of Late Quaternary environmental change in NW Europe through a series of lectures and small group activities. You will then be introduced to a range of key proxy techniques used to reconstruct past environmental change from terrestrial archives. These techniques will be introduced during a field trip and through a series of laboratory and computer practicals.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to provide an introduction to the principles and techniques used to reconstruct past climates and environments at this time. The module outline is driven by staff research interests/expertise within the palaeoenvironmental research group in the department. The syllabus provides some important background for dissertation topics including various sedimentological (e.g. particle size, organic matter determination, heavy metals, mineral magnetics, bulk density, carbon accumulation), biological (e.g. pollen, plant macrofossil, testate amoeba) and chemical (e.g. humification) analytical techniques.

Enquiry-led learning is embedded in the module through guided independent practicals and assessment encouraging independent research. Much of the content includes research and applications from the lecturer’s own work on the topic. This includes investigating environmental change over long timescales, the use of sedimentary records, chronology development and a range of micro and macro fossil analyses.

This module will help you develop skills to enhance your employability potential and career development through:

  • Enhancing your understanding and application of research skills including sampling design and statistical methods.
  • Providing you with the opportunity to engage in enquiry-led learning through exploring topics of long-term environmental and climate change.
  • Developing your communication skills and portfolio by delivering oral presentations, and a written report.
  • Developing good practice of contributing to and working in groups through laboratory-based practical exercises and formative work.
  • Encouraging you to think critically about the ways in which knowledge is applied and communicated in the media, literature and online.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

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

  • 1. Summarise the theories and techniques involved in palaeoenvironmental science
  • 2. Discuss the mechanisms and causes of large climate changes during this period of Earth’s history
  • 3. Describe, evaluate and apply a range of specialised techniques and approaches to palaeoenvironmental questions
  • 4. Assess, synthesise and discuss palaeoclimate data and its relevance

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

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

  • 5. Illustrate and discuss the contested and provisional nature of knowledge and understanding
  • 6. Identify a diverse range of approaches to the generation of knowledge and understanding
  • 7. Evaluate a diverse range of specialised techniques and approaches involved in collecting geographical information
  • 8. Describe, apply and evaluate the diversity of specialised techniques and approaches involved in analysing geographical information
  • 9. Outline the nature of change and system interconnectedness within physical environments
  • 10. Discuss reciprocal relationships between physical and human environments
  • 11. Explain the significance of spatial relationships and the temporal distribution of physical processes on physical and human environments
  • 12. Analyse the spatial and temporal characteristics of environmental perturbations appropriately to understand change

ILO: Personal and key skills

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

  • 13. Communicate ideas, principles and theories effectively and fluently by written means
  • 14. Develop a sustained and reasoned argument
  • 15. Formulate and evaluate questions and identify and evaluate approaches to problem-solving
  • 16. Identify, acquire, critically evaluate and synthesise data from a range of sources
  • 17. Effectively and appropriately interpret and use physical theory and statistical information
  • 18. Undertake independent/self-directed study/learning (including time management, library use and website investigation) to achieve consistent, proficient and sustained attainment
  • 19. Reflect on the process of learning and evaluate personal strengths and weaknesses

Syllabus plan

Indicative plan of module content:

A. Introduction to the Late-glacial and Holocene in NW Europe

  • Last Glacial Maximum
  • Late-glacial Interstadial
  • Loch Lomond Stadial/Younger Dryas
  • Early Holocene
  • Mid- Late Holocene

B. Proxy Techniques

  • Age Depth Modelling
  • Quaternary Archives
    • Peat
    • Lake Sediments
  • Proxy Analyses
    • Core logging/description
    • Organic analysis
    • Particle size analysis
    • Mineral magnetic analysis
    • Sediment chemistry
    • Biological proxies - pollen, charcoal, chironomids, diatoms
  • Peat records of past environmental change
    • Humification
    • Testate Amoeba
    • Bog Surface Wetness reconstruction
  • Pollen and Charcoal analysis
    • Introduction to pollen analysis
    • Pollen morphology and identification
    • Charcoal analysis

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 Teaching13Lectures
Scheduled Learning and Teaching8Practicals
Scheduled Learning and Teaching7Field trip
Guided Independent Study122Additional research, reading and preparation for module assessments

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Outputs of practical exercises4 practical exercisesAllIn class discussion

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
Data analysis exercise602000 word reportAllLecture and feedback sheet
Group presentation4020 minutesAllLecture and feedback sheet

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

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Data analysis exerciseData analysis exerciseAllAugust Ref/Def
Group presentationAlternative assessmentAllAugust 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 submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Lowe, J.J. and Walker, M.J.C. (2014) Reconstructing Quaternary environments. (3rd ed.) Longman, London.
  • Bradley, R.S. (2014) Paleoclimatology: reconstructing climates of the Quaternary. (3rd ed.) Chapman and Hall, London.
  • Roberts N. 2014. The Holocene: an environmental history (3rd ed.). Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester.
  • Walker, M.J.C. (2005) Quaternary Dating Methods. Wiley, Chichester.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Ice age, Last Glacial Maximum, Younger Dryas, Holocene, lake sediments, peat bogs, pollen, charcoal, testate amoeba, quantitative analysis, palaeoclimate, palaeoecology, palaeoenvironment, geochronology, radiocarbon, age-depth modelling

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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