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Study information

Earth System Science

Module titleEarth System Science
Module codeGEO1405B
Academic year2024/5
Module staff

Dr Jo Browse (Convenor)

Professor James Scourse (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

The Earth consists of a series of interacting natural systems (lithosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, atmosphere). The interactions between these systems, called feedbacks, are central to analysing the functioning of major aspects of the Earth, such as climate, sea level and biotic evolution. This way of looking at our world is also critical in analysing the human impact on the Earth system and identifying management strategies to mitigate, remediate or predict geological and environmental hazards and impacts, and in identifying resources. This module is therefore about connectedness and the development of an approach to understanding the Earth that emphasises the connections between the components rather than the components themselves. This module requires no prior skills or experience and is particularly suitable for interdisciplinary pathways.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to:

  • Explore our understanding of Earth origins, the evolution of the solar system, of the ocean, the biosphere and the atmosphere.
  • Introduce natural systems theory.
  • Identify the Earth’s component natural systems and the Earth’s climate system, its forcings and feedbacks.
  • Describe plate tectonics and the role of the internal system in determining or controlling rock formation, the sedimentary cycle, the carbon cycle, Earth surface landforms (geomorphology), oceanic gateways and barriers, biotic evolution.
  • Analyse orbital and gravitational controls on the Earth: tides, days, seasons, years.
  • Explore the influence of tides on the timing and rate of Earth-moon separation.
  • Describe solar variability and its impact on Earth climate.
  • Describe the Earth’s radiation balance, atmospheric and oceanic circulation and their role in redistributing heat around the Earth.
  • Analyse interactions between the hydrosphere and the cryosphere.
  • Identify and describe major biogeochemical cycles, in particular the carbon cycle.
  • Explore the causes of major climatic changes through geological time.
  • Discuss the evolution of hominids and the interactions of humanity with the Earth system.

This module will help you to develop and extend your awareness of the importance of taught and learnt skills in strengthening employability potential, especially through the application of critical analytical skills (review of scientific literature, simple calculations) to a range of contemporary global challenges, notably climate change and geoengineering. More generally, through attending the fieldwork and weekly lectures, alongside your own independent learning, you will develop the following academic and professional skills:

  • fundamental problem solving (linking theory to practice with academic guidance)
  • collaboration (learning about the views and values of others), and
  • audience awareness (presenting ideas effectively, persuading others of the importance and relevance of your views, responding positively and effectively to questions).

The teaching contributions on this module involve elements of research undertaken by staff, such as work on sea-level change (Scourse). Moreover, you are encouraged to undertake enquiry-led learning, specifically through the field component.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

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

  • 1. Evaluate in a basic way the workings of physical systems including concepts such as feedback and equilibrium
  • 2. Evaluate the significance of positive and negative feedback in Earth systems
  • 3. Provide examples of Earth system and climate changes resulting from different forcings and feedbacks
  • 4. Analyse human interactions with the Earth using a systems framework

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

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

  • 5. Describe essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of environmental sciences
  • 6. Identify critical questions from the literature and synthesise research-informed examples into written work
  • 7. Identify and implement, with some guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for addressing a specific research problem in geographical and environmental sciences
  • 8. With guidance, deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within environmental sciences
  • 9. Describe and begin to evaluate approaches to our understanding of environmental sciences with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles

ILO: Personal and key skills

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

  • 10. Develop, with guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound conclusions
  • 11. Communicate ideas, principles and theories using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 12. Collect and interpret appropriate data and undertake straightforward research tasks with guidance
  • 13. Evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in relation to professional and practical skills identified by others
  • 14. Reflect on learning experiences and summarise personal achievements
  • 15. Work in a small team and deal proficiently with the issues that teamwork requires (i.e. communication, motivation, decision-making, awareness, responsibility, and management skills, including setting and working to deadlines)

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Origins of the Earth system and the evolution of our solar system. Brief introduction to the origins of the ocean, the origins of life (biosphere), evolution of the atmosphere, organic evolution.
  • Natural systems theory: inputs, throughputs, outputs of mass and energy. Feedbacks: positive and negative. Concept of equilibrium/homeostasis. System perturbation. Reaction/relaxation/response times (lags). Concept of non-equilibrium.
  • The Earth’s natural systems: lithosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, atmosphere.
  • The Earth’s climate system: fundamental forcings (tectonic, orbital, solar) and Earth system feedbacks controlling the climate system.
  • The lithospheric system: plate tectonics and the sedimentary cycle. CO2 outgassing, tectonic landforms, petrology and tectonics. Landbridges and oceanic gateways.
  • Orbital considerations: the effect of rotation and tilt on day length (slowing of rotation through time) and seasons, and the annual orbit. Gravitational influence of the sun and moon and the other planetary bodies. Earth and ocean tides; tidal dissipation and Earth-moon separation.
  • Solar variability: sunspots and changes in the radiation quantity and quality (spectrum) reaching the Earth.
  • Atmospheric circulation and oceanic circulation: Earth’s radiation balance: redistribution of heat within the atmosphere and oceans.
  • The hydrosphere/cryosphere: the hydrological cycle. Precipitation variability in time and space. Aridity/flooding. Ice sheet growth and decay. The deep sea oxygen isotope record. Sea-level change.
  • The biosphere and biogeochemical cycles: the global carbon cycle. Sources of CO2; sinks of CO2. Earth’s carbon reservoirs. The carbon cycle through time. Icehouse and Greenhouse worlds.
  • Causes of major climatic changes through time: evolution of the land plants, BLAG Hypothesis, uplift weathering hypothesis (Zachos curve). Orbital forcing of ice ages and low-latitude aridity.
  • Causes of CO2 variability over glacial-interglacial timescales: deep ocean circulation, sea ice, iron fertilisation (Earth system feedback).
  • Evolution of hominids and the interactions of humanity with the Earth system.

The module will involve a fieldwork component involving an investigation of evidence for sea-level change on the Cornish coastline. The module field trip may have to be moved online in the event of continued COVID-19 lockdown/social distancing rules. 

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 Teaching22Lectures (22 x 1 hour)
Scheduled Learning and Teaching2Multiple choice tests and feedback in class
Scheduled Learning and Teaching8Fieldwork. The module field trip may have to be moved online in the event of continued COVID-19 lockdown/social distancing rules.
Scheduled Learning and Teaching4Assessment help sessions
Guided Independent Study114Additional research, reading and preparation for module assessments

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Multiple choice class test30 minutes1-6, 9Oral in class

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
Examination (MCQ and short answers)5060 minutes1-14Written
Field report503 pages of text plus 2 pages of tables and diagrams. In the event of the cancellation of the fieldtrip this activity will be moved online and the field report will remain a summative assessment.1-15Written

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

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
ExaminationExamination1-14August Assessment Period
ReportReport1-15August Assessment Period

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. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will count for 100% of the final mark and will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Grotzinger, J. & Jordan, T.H. 2014. Understanding Earth (7th ed.). W.H. Freeman.
  • Lenton, T. 2016. Earth System Science: A Very Short Introduction. OUP.
  • Ruddiman, W.F. 2013. (3rd ed.). Earth’s climate: past and future. Freeman.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Solar system, evolution, plate tectonics, atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, carbon cycle, climate change, human origins, natural systems, feedbacks, entropy

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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