Skip to main content

Study information

Quaternary Environmental Change

Module titleQuaternary Environmental Change
Module codeGEO3448
Academic year2024/5
Module staff

Professor Stephan Harrison (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

How did the world's landscapes respond to the rapid environmental changes of the Quaternary? This module gives you an understanding of the ways in which scientists have been able to reconstruct Quaternary environmental change. You will learn about the locations and types of sedimentary archives, and also about the effects that ice sheets had on the landscape, techniques used  to interpret past climate change and the dating techniques that have been developed to answer questions about recent Earth history.

Module aims - intentions of the module

In this module we aim to examine in detail the climate and environments associated with the Quaternary era (last two million years), focusing in particular on the period following the Last Glacial Maximum. During the module you will examine the processes, products and controls on landform development during this time period. You will explore the causes of Quaternary climate change, and its manifestations on environmental systems and discuss the proxy records for Quaternary environmental change including deep sea cores, ice cores, lakes, glacial sediments and loess. Dating techniques are outlined and discussed. A field trip will take place to some of the classic Quaternary sites in Cornwall and Devon. The module places great reliance on student motivation, independent learning and critical thinking. As a result, employability skills (ILOs 10-14) will be enhanced by students taking this module.

Through attending the weekly lectures, the fieldtrip and completing the assessments, you will further develop the following academic and professional skills that will be transferable to future employment:

  • problem solving (linking theory to practice, developing your own ideas with confidence, being able to respond to novel and unfamiliar problems)
  • managing structure (identifying key demands of the task, setting clearly defined goals, responding flexibly to changing priorities)
  • time management (managing time effectively) and
  • audience awareness (presenting ideas effectively in multiple formats, 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 module staff, such as work on the glacial history of SW England and SW Ireland, and the lateglacial history of Patagonia and methodologies of reconstructing and dating past glacier behaviour (Harrison).

Module field trips may have to be moved online/replaced in the event of continued COVID-19 lockdown/social distancing rules

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

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

  • 1. Analyse the causes, controls and feedback mechanisms associated with Quaternary climatic change, including the role of ocean circulation and atmospheric processes
  • 2. Review, in detail, the spatial and temporal variability of environmental change
  • 3. Assess the landform response to Late Quaternary climate change and evaluate critically the causes and timing of midlatitude glaciation, including its processes and products
  • 4. Apply appropriately field recording skills and interpretation of field data with reference to the literature and the wider climatic/environmental context

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

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

  • 5. Describe in detail and analyse essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of physical geography
  • 6. Analyse and evaluate independently a range of research-informed literature and synthesise research-informed examples from the literature into written work
  • 7. Identify and implement, with limited guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for solving a range of complex problems in physical geography
  • 8. With minimal guidance, deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within physical geography
  • 9. Describe and evaluate in detail approaches to our understanding of physical geography 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. Devise and sustain, with little guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound, convincing conclusions
  • 11. Communicate effectively arguments, evidence and conclusions using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 12. Analyse and evaluate appropriate data and complete a range of research-like tasks with very limited guidance
  • 13. Evaluate own strengths and weaknesses in relation to graduate-level professional and practical skills, and act autonomously to develop new areas of skills as necessary
  • 14. Reflect effectively and independently on learning experiences and evaluate personal achievements

Syllabus plan

The syllabus will be based on the following topics:

  • The history of Quaternary thought
  • Controls on Quaternary climate change, Milankovitch cycles
  • Processes of ice sheet growth
  • The role of oceanic circulation in short-term climate change
  • High frequency climate change, Heinrich events, Bond cycles, Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles
  • Dating techniques
  • Interpreting landscapes of glaciation
  • Inferences of environmental change from glacial records
  • Proxy records from the Late Quaternary
  • Environmental and landscape change during the early Holocene
  • Case studies: The lateglacial history of mountain systems in the British Isles and  Patagonia

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 Teaching20Lectures (10 x 2 hours)
Scheduled Learning and Teaching8Fieldtrip (depending on COVID restrictions) Module field trips may have to be moved online/replaced in the event of continued COVID-19 lockdown/social distancing rules
Guided Independent Study122Additional research, reading and preparation for module assessments

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Short answer questions during lectures and fieldtrip Ongoing throughout the moduleAllOral

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
Presentation6020 minutes1-12Written
Essay402000 words1-12Written

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

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
PresentationPresentation1-12August Assessment Period
EssayEssay1-12August 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 submit a further assessment. 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

  • Evans, D.J.A. (ed.) 2005. Glacial Landsystems. (Arnold).
  • Grove, J. 2004. Little Ice Ages: ancient and modern. (Routledge).
  • Lowe, J.J. and Walker, M.J.C. (1997). Reconstructing Quaternary Environments, (London, Longman,).

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

Quaternary environmental change, geomorphology, deep sea cores, ice cores, lakes, glacial sediments, loess, dating techniques

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date