BSc Geography with International Study / Course details

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
Past Climates

Course unit fact file
Unit code GEOG21431
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The Quaternary is a period of profound global change, including advances and retreats of ice sheets, expansions and contractions of desert regions and large, rapid changes to both ocean circulation and the biosphere. Understanding the Quaternary period provides the context for present day climate issues and a backdrop to human evolution. This course provides a general introduction to the Quaternary climate system and its impacts on the environments and landscapes of the last 2.58 million years. By exploring these timescales we gain critical insights into the nature and sensitivity of the global climate system to external forcing and internal interactions between the various ‘spheres’ (atmosphere, lithosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere). This course will also explore global and local archives of climate change and learn about the responses of different landscapes and environments.



  • provide an introduction to the nature and impacts of Quaternary climate change across a range of timescales
  • outline the climatic, environmental changes and impacts on landscapes that occurred as the result of orbital-forcing of climate, as well as abrupt reorganisations within the Earth system.
  • briefly explore the possible connections between human evolution/migration and climatic and environmental change.
  • provide a starting point for exploring the major archives and proxies of climatic and environmental change used by Quaternary scientists.

Teaching and learning methods

The course is delivered though lecture classes (10 x 2hr) and supported by a programme of seminars, which includes a museum visit and computer practical class to build confidence in data analysis.  Independent reading and study is essential. Reading lists and links to electronic resources will be provided on Blackboard. You are encouraged to use the discussion forum on Blackboard to discuss common questions and ideas about the course and share useful resources. 

Knowledge and understanding

  • describe and explain the nature of Quaternary climate change, from the ice age cycles to rapid changes
  • understand the response and development of a range of dynamic landscapes to climatic changes during the Quaternary
  • describe, explain and evaluate some of the key archives and methods used to trace past climate and environmental change
  • describe and evaluate the links between the evolution and migration of hominins and Quaternary climatic and environmental change

Intellectual skills

  • describe, explain and critically evaluate literature and datasets.
  • understand more about the process of research into past climate

Practical skills

  • confidently plot Quaternary datasets on time-axis using Excel.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • apply scientific skills, including sourcing relevant literature, accessing datasets, critical analysis, interpretation and discussion of both theoretical ideas and datasets.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 50%
Written assignment (inc essay) 50%

Feedback methods

Feedback will be provided in the following ways during this course unit:

  • Verbal feedback through Q&A, discussion and interactive activities within lectures
  • Formative feedback on Quaternary discussion topics during seminars
  • Verbal feedback on any course unit issue through consultation hours
  • Online feedback via a discussion boards
  • Written feedback on coursework essays in the latter part of the semester
  • Written feedback on the examination through personal tutorials

Recommended reading

Elias, S.A. and Mock, C. (Eds), 2013. Encyclopaedia of Quaternary Science. 2nd Edition, Elsevier. pp 3888 NOTE this is an online resource. 

Lowe, J.J. and Walker, M.J.C. (2015) Reconstructing Quaternary Environments. 3rd edition. Abingdon, Oxon, Routledge. pp538

Ruddiman, W.F. (2014) Earth’s Climate: past and future. 3rd edition. New York, W.H. Freeman and Company. pp445. NOTE the First and Second Editions are also excellent. 

Key journals include:  Geology, Science, Nature, Journal of Quaternary Science, Quaternary Research, Quaternary Science Reviews, Global and Planetary Change



Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 20
Seminars 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 168

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Abigail Stone Unit coordinator

Return to course details