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Study information

Tropical Marine Carbonate Systems: Responses to Environmental Change

Module titleTropical Marine Carbonate Systems: Responses to Environmental Change
Module codeGEO3246
Academic year2023/4
Module staff

Professor Chris Perry (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

The functioning of tropical marine carbonate systems such as coral reefs and reef islands are under threat from rapidly changing climatic and environmental conditions. In this module you will examine the geomorphological and ecological processes that interact to determine the contemporary occurrence and form of critical tropical marine systems such as reefs and reef islands, examine their Holocene geomorphic development and growth histories, andconsider how their growth potential may change under changing environmental conditions. Specifically, you will explore broad questions such as 


  • How have marine carbonate systems, such as coral reefs and islands, responded to past sea level and oceanographic change?  

  • What physical, geomorphological and sedimentary processes operatein these systems today, and how are these linked to reef landform development?  

  • How might marine carbonate systems respond to future environmental changes?  


A key focus of the module will be the opportunity to undertake your own research to address questions around the impacts of environmental change on reef and reef island systems over a range of temporal scales. This will includea small group basedresearch project early in the courseto investigate the geological/geomorphic development of coral reefsystems in a geographical region of your choice, which will form the basis for a research presentation. The second research exercise will involve acomputer baseddata analysis and interpretation exercise using either video or photo quadrat datasetsto support quantitative assessments of how reef community composition and coral carbonate production rates are responding to major environmental disturbances.. This exercise will provide an opportunity for data collection, and the consideration of appropriate datapresentation and analytical(including statistical) approaches, and a chance to gain experience in concise scientific writing through the production of a scientific paper style report.  

Module aims - intentions of the module

  • This module aims to examine the geomorphology of tropical marine carbonate systems such as coral reefs and islands, and to consider their responses (past and projected) to environmental change.You will cover some or all of the following topics:the geomorphic  and ecological factors that control coral reef and island occurrence (and how these vary both temporally and spatially as environments and climate change) 

  • the physical and ecological processes that control coral reef form and diversity 

  • the controls on, and nature of, the geomorphic development of coral reefs over different temporal and spatial timescales 

  • andthe complex and interacting responses of reefs to both natural and anthropogenically-induced environmental change 


The small group exercise will provide experience in research presentation approaches, whilst marine video/photo quadrat data analysis skills will be developed through computer-based practical sessions (using image analysis software such as Kinovea or JMicrovision). The aim here is increaseddata collection, graphic and statistical analysis,data interpretation,and scientific writing skills to support employability and future study. 


Learning will be supported through exposure to a wide-range of case studies relating to recent andongoing reef and reef island research in the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific reef-building regions.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

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

  • 1. Explain how physical and ecological processes interact to determine the contemporary occurrence and form of tropical marine carbonate systems.
  • 2. Describe the geomorphic models and concepts associated with coral reef system development through the Holocene
  • 3. Discuss the evolving nature and form of reef systems in response to, and as a function of past, sea-level and environmental changes
  • 4. Evaluate the complex and interacting roles of different natural and anthropogenically-induced environmental changes in terms of reef system form, development and resilience

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

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

  • 5. Evaluate a diverse range of specialised techniques and approaches involved in collecting geographical data
  • 6. Describe, apply and evaluate the diversity of specialised techniques and approaches involved in analysing geographical data
  • 7. Assess the nature of change within physical environments

ILO: Personal and key skills

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

  • 8. Communicate ideas, principles and theories effectively and fluently by written and verbal means
  • 9. Develop a sustained and reasoned argument
  • 10. Formulate and evaluate questions and identify and evaluate approaches to problem-solving
  • 11. Identify, acquire, evaluate and synthesise data from a range of sources
  • 12. Use C&IT effectively and appropriately to select, analyse and present information
  • 13. Effectively and appropriately interpret and use numerical statistical information
  • 14. Undertake independent/self-directed study/learning (including time management) to achieve consistent, proficient and sustained attainment
  • 15. Reflect on the process of learning and evaluate personal strengths and weaknesses
  • 16. Develop reef community and underwater video analysis skills

Syllabus plan

You will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Key processes influencing coral reef system development
  • Characteristics and occurrence of coral reef landforms
  • Holocene evolution and responses of reefs to past sea-level and environmental change
  • Contemporary carbonate production and reef accretion
  • Ecological-geomorphological interactions on reefs and impacts of disturbance
  • Projection uncertainties and questions
  • Reef research data collection and analysis:
  • Small group research presentations
  • Image analysis of impacts on coral reef communities and reef carbonate production rates

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 Teaching10In class lectures and case studies
Scheduled Learning and Teaching4Formative oral presentations, discussion and feedback
Scheduled Learning and Teaching12Computer practicals using video analysis software and carbonate production spreadsheets
Guided Independent Study18Viewing and note taking from online core content video material
Guided Independent Study6Reading and research for in-class discussions
Guided Independent Study60Reading and research for assignment write-ups
Guided Independent Study40Analysing, critiquing, reviewing wider scientific literature

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Small group oral presentation and discussion In-class1, 7-10, 17-18Tutor feedback

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
Small group research poster including presentation 30A21-4, 6-18 Written
Research summary report and data analysis in the form of a scientific paper704 sides A4All Written

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

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Small group research poster including presentationIndividual research poster1-4, 6-18August Ref/Def
Research summary report and data analysis in the form of a scientific paperEssay (2000 words)All August 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 research summary report will be replaced by a 2000 word essay, and the small group research poster presentation will be replaced by an individual research poster. 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 2000-word essay. 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

Mainly through directed and other reading of primary science literature (i.e., Journal articles). In addition, the following texts are useful either in their entirety or through specific relevant chapters:

  • Aronson R.B. (2010) Geological Approaches to Coral Reef Ecology. Springer
  • Dubinsky Z. And Stambler N (2001) Coral Reefs: An Ecosystem in Transition. Springer pp. 521.
  • Hopley D. (2011) Encyclopaedia of Modern Coral Reefs: Structure, Form and Process. Springer
  • Hopley D., Smithers S.G. and Parnell K.E. (2007) The Geomorphology of the Great Barrier Reef: development, diversity and change. Cambridge University Press. pp. 532.
  • Hubbard, D.K., Rogers, C.S., Lipps, J.H., Stanley, Jr., G.D. (Eds.) (2016) Reefs at the Crossroads. Springer.
  • Perry C.T. & Taylor K.G. (2007) Environmental Sedimentology. Blackwells, Oxford. pp. 441. Chapter 9. Tropical Coastal Environments – coral reefs and mangroves.
  • Sheppard C.R.C, Davy S.K. and Pilling G.M. (2009) The Biology of Coral Reefs. Oxford University Press pp. 333.
  • Slaymaker O, Spencer T. and Embletin-Hamann C (2009) Geomorphology and Global Environmental Change. Chapter 7 – Coral Reefs. Cambridge University Press 528 pp.

And for more general/introductory reading:

  • Woodroffe, D.D. (2002) Coasts: form, process and evolution. Cambridge University Press. pp. 623. Chapter 5 –Reef coasts

Key words search

Coral reefs, reef islands, geomorphology, Holocene, sea-level change, environmental change

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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