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Study information

The Cryosphere

Module titleThe Cryosphere
Module codeGEO2232
Academic year2024/5
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. During seminars, you will discuss the wider impacts of changes occurring in the cryosphere, and what mitigation or adaptation solutions may be appropriate. The approaches and methods for inferring past environmental changes in these environments will also be covered to provide the longer-term context. Fieldwork will develop further your skills in describing, analysing, and interpreting glacially-influenced sedimentary environments.

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 synthesising evidence and using these to develop a reasoned interpretation will be developed during the fieldtrip and seminars.
  • Interpersonal skills will be developed during weekly group-based discussions.

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 changes within cold environments
  • 6. Develop skills in making field observations to infer past environmental conditions

ILO: Personal and key skills

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

  • 7. Communicate ideas, principles and theories effectively and fluently by written and verbal means
  • 8. Develop a sustained and reasoned argument based on a wide-range of evidence
  • 9. Work in a group to explore a topic and present a verbal summary to the wider group

Syllabus plan

The module introduces cryospheric science through four overarching topics:

  • Glaciers in the climate system
  • Ice sheets
  • Mountain glaciers
  • The Arctic: ice caps & permafrost

Lectures are supplemented by weekly discussion seminars, and by a day-long field trip to North-Devon to evaluate the evidence for past cold climates.

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 Teaching10Lectures (10 x 1 hour)
Scheduled Learning and Teaching10Discussion seminars (10 x 1 hour)
Scheduled Learning and Teaching61 day field trip – formative (cohort feedback)
Scheduled Learning and Teaching2Staff-led revision session (2 x 1 hour)
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
End of topic online quizzes5 x 10 min = 50 min in total1-4Oral to group, individual oral feedback also offered
Fieldtrip observationsAttendance and observations assessed formatively during trip and in discussion seminars3, 5, 6-9Oral feedback in discussion seminars

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 minutes1-8Written

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

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
ExaminationExamination1-8Referral/deferral 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 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

  • ELE page

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


Module pre-requisites


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NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date