Environmental Change: Past, Present and Future

This information is for the 2016/17 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

Many consider that ‘Climate Change’ is the greatest challenge currently facing human society, mainly because of the ‘Environmental Changes’ that it will cause. But what are ‘Climate Change’ and ‘Environmental Change’? What causes these changes? How much have they changed in the past and how do we know? How much is human activity responsible for the recent changes identified and when did this influence begin? How is the climate going to change in the next century and if water finds its own level, why does sea-level change vary over the Globe?

To answer these questions requires that 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. From this, an appreciation of change and evolution over differing time-scales is developed, which will serve as an essential basis for students when evaluating the contemporary two-way interaction between humans and the environment. The relevant science will be taught as and when required.

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 on river flow. Flooding.

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

C. Quaternary Environmental Change: Environmental Change over the last 2.6 million years.

Prelude: Introduction to the Quaternary.  Divisions of the Quaternary.  The evolution of humans.  But what went before? - Long-term influences on climate and environmental change; past ice ages and 'greenhouse worlds'.  Catastrophic events. The Gaia hypothesis.

Establishment of the contemporary paradigm of Quaternary climate change, i.e.: the "Ice House - Hot House" paradigm. Ice cores, ocean sediment cores, the Oxygen Isotope record; what causes glaciations and inter-glacials? The Milankovitch Mechanism. Milankovitch and sub-Milankovitch oscillations.

D. Past, Present and Future Change

Merging the instrumental, historical and proxy records. Problems with dating. The growing influence of humans (the human impact). The possibility of an Anthropocene / Anthropogene.  Holocene Climate Change: The Post-Glacial Climatic Optimum, Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice-age.  Mann et al's "Hockey Stick".  Human impacts on the Ecosphere and the Ruddiman Hypothesis.  Debates about Twentieth Century Warming. 

Patterns of sea-level change: Past, Present and Future. 

Contemporary Climate/Environmental Change and future prospects to AD 2100.


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

Please note there is a Reading Week taking place in Week 6 in both Michaelmas and Lent Terms.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce two essays during the year, one in each term, and give class papers.

Indicative reading

Bell, M. and Walker, J.C.,  Late Quaternary Environmental Change: Physical and Human Perspectives, 2005. ; P. 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;A. E. Dessler, Introduction to Modern Climate Change, 2012; J. 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 (60%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (15%, 1500 words) and essay (25%, 2000 words) in the LT.

Student performance results

(2013/14 - 2015/16 combined)

Classification % of students
First 22.8
2:1 50
2:2 23.9
Third 1.1
Fail 2.2

Key facts

Department: Geography & Environment

Total students 2015/16: 35

Average class size 2015/16: 12

Capped 2015/16: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

PDAM skills

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

Course survey results

(2013/14 - 2015/16 combined)

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

The scores below are average responses.

Response rate: 76%



Reading list (Q2.1)


Materials (Q2.3)


Course satisfied (Q2.4)


Lectures (Q2.5)


Integration (Q2.6)


Contact (Q2.7)


Feedback (Q2.8)


Recommend (Q2.9)