Environmental Change: Past, Present and Future

This information is for the 2013/14 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof David Jones STC S417


This course is compulsory on the BSc in Environment and Development and BSc in Environmental Policy with Economics. This course is available on the BA in Geography and BSc in Geography with Economics. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

Course content

The course focuses on developing an appreciation of the Planet Earth as the home of human societies. The analysis focuses on the physical nature of the 'natural' or biophysical systems and involves consideration of how the solid earth, the gaseous atmosphere, the hydrosphere and the biosphere, were formed, have evolved, interact and have changed over time due to both external ( extra-terrestrial) and internal factors, including humans.

Consideration of 'material properties', 'processes' and 'fluxes' is undertaken with the purpose of better understanding the varying causes and scales of 'environmental change' that have occurred. From this, an appreciation of change and evolution over differing timescales is developed which will serve as an essential basis for students when evaluating the contemporary two-way interaction between humans and the environment. The course consists of the following sections:

A. Introduction to Environmental Change: The structure and functioning of the Earth as a set of systems (The Geosystem). The Scientific Method. The systems approach and its application to environmental studies. Ecosystem concept. Biogeochemical cycles. The nature and causes of Environmental Change and Climate Change; “Change” and “Variability”.

B. Key Aspects of Environmental Change:

(i) The Contemporary Atmosphere. Composition and structure of the atmosphere. Radiation and selective absorption (Greenhouse Effect). Global energy budget and global energy transfers.

(ii) The Hydrosphere: Hydrological cycles. Cloud formation, precipitation and evapotranspiration. General introduction to hydrology and the "Hydrological Cascade". Human Influences. Flooding.

(iii) The Biosphere; Development and change of Biodiversity over time due to evolution through Natural Selection

C. Long-term Geosystem Change: From Creationism to Deep Time. Consideration of relevant aspects of the following: The nature, origin and evolution of the Solar System and Planet Earth. Catastrophism versus Uniformitarianism. The evolution of the solid Earth, lithosphere, atmosphere , hydrosphere and biosphere. Plate tectonics and environment/ climate change. Mass extinctions and the development of biodiversity. Gaia.

D. Quaternary Environmental Change: Environmental Change over the last 2.6 million years. The paradigm of Quaternary environmental change, i.e. the "Ice House- Hot House" paradigm. Ice cores, ocean sediment cores, isotope analysis, The Milankovitch Mechanism. Holocene Climate Change and debates. The nature and causes of sea-level change. Isostasy. Human impacts on the Ecosphere.

E. Global Environmental Change: Contemporary Climate/Environmental Change and the basis of predictions to AD 2100.


20 hours of lectures and 9 hours of classes in the MT. 18 hours of lectures and 10 hours of classes in the LT. 3 hours of classes in the ST.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce two essays during the year and give class papers.

Indicative reading

TPP. Smithson, K. Addison and K. Atkinson, Fundamentals of the Physical Environment, 2008;T H van Andel, New Views on an Old Planet, 1994; R Chistopherson, Geosystems, 2005; J Gribbin,Almost Everyone's Guide to Science, 1998;JA. D. Dessler, Introduction to Modern Climate Change, 2012; . Houghton, Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, 2009  ; J Chapman & M J Reiss, Ecology. Principles and Applications, 1992; J E Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, 1988; R Huggett, Catastrophism, 1997; ; W.J. Burroughs, Climate Change: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 2007.


Exam (70%, duration: 3 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (15%, 1500 words) in the MT.
Essay (15%, 1500 words) in the LT.

Student performance results

(2010/11 - 2012/13 combined)

Classification % of students
First 13.7
2:1 46.6
2:2 31.5
Third 5.5
Fail 2.7

Teachers' comment

Recent course changes over the past three years have improved grades.

Key facts

Department: Geography & Environment

Total students 2012/13: 30

Average class size 2012/13: 16

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

PDAM skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication

Course survey results

(2010/11 - 2012/13 combined)

1 = "best" score, 5 = "worst" score

The scores below are average responses.

Response rate: 75.6%



Reading list (Q2.1)


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