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Unit information: Catchment Science: Hydrology, Ecology and Management in 2020/21

Unit name Catchment Science: Hydrology, Ecology and Management
Unit code GEOG30013
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Johnes
Open unit status Not open

GEOG20011 Research Methods in Physical Geography



School/department School of Geographical Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science


Aquatic Environments are subject to immense pressures as a result of human activity. Located at the base of catchment systems, all activities in the catchment will ultimately have an impact on waters draining from the land to the water body, whether it is a small pond, a stream, river, estuary or the open ocean. This unit covers the physical, chemical and ecological processes controls on the function of the hydrosphere, and the response of catchments to environmental change.

The unit falls into two halves. The first half focuses on the processes which control the movement of water, sediment and chemical contaminants from land within a catchment to a water body and thence downstream from source to sea.

A full day field trip and laboratory class divides the first and second halves of this unit. This focuses on developing an understanding of the sources, pathways and impacts of nutrient and sediment pollution in a local catchment building on knowledge gained in the first half of the unit. Students work in groups, collect samples and bring them back for analysis in the linked laboratory class, where they will have access to and learn about instruments in our LOWTEX laboratories suites, used for our high resolution aquatic environments research at the University of Bristol. Students write up the field and lab element as an independent field report which comprises 35% of the assessment for this unit.

The second half of the unit considers how environmental change, in combination with these processes, leads to water quality problems in freshwaters and the coastal environment. Topics covered include

(1) Catchment biogeochemical function

(2) Process controls on nutrient and sediment flux to and cycling and transport within freshwaters

(3) Carbon flux from land to inland and coastal waters in peatland systems

(4) Acidification of upland and boreal waters and evidence for their recovery in recent years

(5) Sediment erosion and transport in agricultural catchments and impacts of fine sediment deposition in chalk streams, and

(6) Eutrophication of inland and coastal waters and impacts on ecosystem and human health.

Disruption of the global biogeochemical cycles (C, N and P) and the impacts of this disruption on aquatic ecosystems will form an overarching theme for this element.

Statement of unit aims

The objective of this unit is for students to gain an insight into how aquatic environments ‘work’, and how they are likely to respond to major drivers of environmental change. The specific aims are for students to gain an understanding of:

  • the links and feedbacks between the processes (hydrological, geomorphological and biogeochemical) that control the function of waterbodies and their catchments in different environments
  • the likely response of inland and coastal waters to global environmental change
  • the use of simulation models to support scientific research into the likely future responses of waters to global environmental change
  • the problems associated with data collection, and laboratory analysis to support research, policy and management

Intended learning outcomes

On completion of this Unit students should have:

  1. an in-depth understanding of the links between hydrology and land surface processes in catchments
  2. an appreciation of the interplay between the different processes (hydrological, geomorphological and biogeochemical) and the implications of this interplay for catchment form and function in differing environments
  3. the ability to critically evaluate information derived from diverse sources and identify areas of scientific uncertainty in catchment hydrology
  4. the ability to distill information and synthesise complex concepts in a concise, simple manner targeted to diverse audiences

The following transferable skills are developed in this Unit:

  • Technical mathematical, chemical and ecological vocabulary
  • Analytical skills and problem solving
  • Reasoning and logic
  • Independent research
  • Communication skills

Teaching details

The unit will be taught through a blended combination of online and, if possible, in-person teaching, including

  • online resources
  • synchronous group workshops, seminars, tutorials and/or office hours
  • asynchronous individual activities and guided reading for students to work through at their own pace
  • practical and/or field work if possible; students who either begin or continue their studies in an online mode may be required to complete laboratory practical and/or field work, or alternative activities, in person, either during the academic year 2020/21 or subsequently, in order to meet the intended learning outcomes for the unit, prepare them for subsequent units or to satisfy accreditation requirements.

Assessment Details

1 x 3500 word Field Report (50%) (ILOs 1-5)

2000 word essay (50%) (ILOs 1-5)

Students will work in groups to collect samples and undertake laboratory of these samples for the field report element, but must write up the field report as an independent piece of work.

Reading and References

Essential reading is mainly based on journal articles and specific reading lists will be given ahead of each lecture.