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Study information

The Cryosphere

Module titleThe Cryosphere
Module codeGEO2232
Academic year2019/0
Module staff

Dr Steven Palmer (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks



Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

The cold regions of our planet influence our entire world's climate and the cryosphere is central to the daily lives of the people, plants, and animals that have made it their home. A fundamental challenge in the cryospheric sciences is to understand the fate of Earth's icy regions in the context of ever-changing environmental conditions. In addressing this challenge, the processes, landforms, and materials of glacial environments inform much of what we know about glacial response to environmental change. Through this module, you will develop an understanding of the varied components of the cryosphere, as well as the physical processes that shape our planet's diverse icy landscapes. You will study the concepts and theory of glaciology and geomorphology, and will engage with current research on glacial processes in the Arctic, the Antarctic and in Mountain regions.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The module aims to provide you with insight into the various parts of the Earth system that make up The Cryosphere. You will learn about the fundamental concepts underpinning current research in polar and glaciated mountain regions. You will also learn about the physical processes that combine to erode and shape glacial and near-glacial landforms and landscapes. The focus will be upon classes that provide you with an understanding of the form and flow of global land-based and floating ice, with  a background to the approaches and methods for inferring past environmental changes in these environments. Fieldwork will develop further your skills in describing, analysing, and interpreting glacially-influenced sedimentary environments. Practicals will provide additional exposure to computer-based investigation using geospatial data that will equip you with useful skills for dissertation work or further specialised study. This module will help you to develop and extend your awareness of the importance of taught and learnt skills in strengthening your employability potential. 

Specifically, the practical aspects of the module will develop the following graduate attributes:

  • Articulating scientific concepts and confidence in generating new ideas during the fieldwork day
  • Skills in making observations and reasoning interpretations during the field day
  • Problem-solving through investigation of a scientific question in data-led practicals and report
  • Interpersonal skills during group-based discussions in all practical elements of the module

The teaching contributions on this module involve elements of research undertaken by the module staff on ice sheets and mountain glaciers.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

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

  • 1. Distinguish the components of the cryosphere and describe the processes linking them to other parts of the Earth system
  • 2. Illustrate the processes and factors affecting ice dynamics and glacier mass balance
  • 3. Explain how cold climate indicators are preserved in the geomorphological and sedimentological records
  • 4. Outline how each component of the Cryosphere has changed in recent decades, and explain the wider impacts these changes are having

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

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

  • 5. Outline the nature of change within physical environments
  • 6. Evaluate a range of techniques and approaches involved in collecting and analysing geographical information
  • 7. Develop skills in field observations and logging of sedimentary sections
  • 8. Identify a diverse range of approaches to the generation of knowledge and understanding

ILO: Personal and key skills

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

  • 9. Communicate ideas, principles and theories effectively and fluently by written and verbal means
  • 10. Develop a sustained and reasoned argument
  • 11. Effectively present and interpret geophysical and geospatial information

Syllabus plan

The module gives an introduction to cryospheric science through six topics:

  • Fundamentals of glaciology
  • Reconstructing Glacier and climate history
  • The Arctic: ice-caps, glacier hydrology and impacts
  • The Antarctic: ice-streams, ice shelves and subglacial lakes
  • Mountain regions: Glacier hazards and water resources
  • Periglacial environments

Lectures are supplemented by computer-based practicals, and by a day-long field trip to North-Devon to evaluate evidence for past cold climates. It is desirable, although not essential, that students have prior experience of using ArcGIS software for completing the module coursework.

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 Teaching15Lectures (15 x 1 hour)
Scheduled Learning and Teaching61-day field trip – formative (cohort feedback)
Scheduled Learning and Teaching6Practical sessions (3 x 2 hours)
Scheduled Learning and Teaching1Staff-led revision session (1 x 1 hour, term-3)
Guided Independent Study58Additional reading and preparation for module examination
Guided Independent Study64Research, reading and preparation for coursework

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Online quiz related to lecture material1 hour1-4Oral and written to group, individual oral feedback also offered
FieldworkAttendance and observations assessed formatively in practical 1 3, 5, 11 Oral feedback in practical

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
Examination5090 minutesAllWritten
Scientific report501800 words 2, 4-6, 8-11Written

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

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
ExaminationExaminationAll August Ref/Def
Scientific reportScientific report2, 4-6, 8-11August 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 or 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

The following list is offered as an indication of the type and level of information that you are expected to consult. Further guidance will be provided by the Module Convener.

Key textbooks:

  • Benn, D.I. and Evans D.J.A. Glaciers and Glaciation. London: Hodder Education; 2010.
  • Cuffey, K. and Paterson, W.S.B. The Physics of Glaciers: Elsevier; 2010 – chapters 2, 4, and 6

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Indicative learning resources - Other resources

Indicative journal articles:

  • Bennett, M.R., (2003). Ice streams as the arteries of an ice sheet: their mechanics, stability and significance. Earth-Science Reviews, 61(3-4): 309–339.

Key words search

Cryosphere, cold-climate, glacier, periglacial, Antarctica, the Arctic

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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