BSc Geography with International Study / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Past Climates

Course unit fact file
Unit code GEOG21442
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Reconstructing past changes in climate and the environment allows us to place current climate change in a long-term context and understand (and potentially predict) how the Earth system responds to disruption. The Quaternary period experienced profound global change, including the advance and retreat of ice sheets, expansions and contractions of deserts and biomes, and major changes to ocean and atmospheric circulation systems. This course provides a general introduction to the physical science of the climate system and its impact on environments and landscapes of the last 2.6 million years. We will explore rates of change, to gain critical insights into the nature and sensitivity of the global climate system to external forcing and internal interactions between the atmosphere, lithosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere, and the environmental context for human evolution. The range of evidence and techniques used to gain insight into past climate change is examined, and their relative advantages and limitations discussed.


The unit aims to:

  • Provide an introduction to the nature and impacts of past climate change across a range of timescales and landscapes during the Quaternary period (last 2.6 Million years).
  • Outline climatic and environmental changes resulting from long-term orbital-forcing and short-term abrupt reorganisations of the Earth system.
  • Examine key archives and proxies of climatic and environmental change.
  • Explore connections between people and climatic and environmental change through time.

Teaching and learning methods

Lectures involve introduction of theoretical content . 

Seminars typically involve a set of preparatory readings and/or guided tasks designed to consolidate understanding of lecture material and support critical engagement with published literature and case studies. Seminars will typically involve discussion in small groups, with the course lecturers, and feeding back into the wider classroom.

Knowledge and understanding

• Describe and explain the nature and timescales of Quaternary climate change, from ice age cycles to rapid perturbations.

• Understand the environmental response and development of a different latitudes/regions to climatic changes during the Quaternary.

• Evaluate some of the key archives and methods used to trace past climate and environmental change .

Intellectual skills

• Critically evaluate literature and datasets.

• Explain how and why reconstructions of past climate and environmental response may disagree.

Practical skills

• Plot published data from Quaternary climate records against time using spreadsheet software (e.g. Excel).

Transferable skills and personal qualities

• Source relevant literature.

• Access published datasets.

• Discuss theoretical ideas and interpretations, and the evidence used to support them.

• Critically analyse debates found within published literature.

Assessment methods

Assessment task                  Length               How and when feedback is provided         Weighting
Computer practical               2 hours                  Verbal feedback in class                                Formative
worksheet with short-answer 
style questions. 
To source and plot published 
data, explore this and 
improve understanding of 
key course concepts and themes.

Assessment task                  Length                       How and when feedback is provided   Weighting

Coursework Essay                 1,800 words                  Written feedback within                            50%
                                                                                    15 working days

Exam (3-day open book         Part A short answers     Written feedback                                      50%
exam)                                      (1000 words)                following exam period
                                               Part B long-form
                                               answer (one from
                                               choice of 4 questions, 
                                               1,200 words)

                                               2,200 words in total

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
Lectures 20
Seminars 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 170

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Anna Hughes Unit coordinator

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