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Unit information: Extreme Climates of the past in 2020/21

Unit name Extreme Climates of the past
Unit code GEOG30017
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Professor. Rachel Flecker
Open unit status Not open

GEOG20003 The Earth System



School/department School of Geographical Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science


In order to assess the anthropogenic impact on climate, it is first necessary to understand natural climate variability. In this unit we consider the available data on the Earth’s climate over geological time focusing particularly on extreme warm and cold episodes in Earth history.


  • To develop student understanding of natural climate variability over geological time;
  • To teach through practicals the process by which climate proxies are used to reconstruct past climate and give insight into the uncertainty that this entails;
  • To expose students to the pros and cons of climate model-data comparison and its implications for future climate predictions

Element 1 : Extreme warm climates of the past

This element of the unit will ask students to consider why investigating past climate is important. Its lectures and practicals will also provide an introduction to how climate proxies are used to reconstruct past climate. The course ends by considering the evidence for warm climates in the past and questions how well we can model them.

  1. Why study past climates
  2. Climate proxies - the theory (practical)
  3. Climate proxies - the practice (practical)
  4. Eocene case study (practical)
  5. Miocene case study

Element 2: Ice at both poles

The main focus of this element is how the Earth System behaved during the Quaternary when there extensive ice sheets developed in both hemispheres. The lectures and practicals introduce students to a variety of climate proxy archives that are used to test climate models and constrain climate forcings.

  1. Stable isotopes and time series analysis (practical)
  2. Ice cores and climate forcing (practical)
  3. Ice cores and past temperatures
  4. Synchronising climate records and abrupt climate change
  5. The bi-polar sea-saw (practical)
  6. Model-data comparison of the big melt

Intended learning outcomes

On completion of this Unit students should be able to:

  1. Quantify some of the uncertainties associated with common proxies of past climate;
  2. give a reasoned account of the problems encountered during climate model-data comparison and its implications for future climate predictions
  3. describe the key components of the global Earth System and their interactions.

The following transferable skills are developed in this Unit:

  • Numeracy
  • Analytical skills and problem solving
  • Computer literacy

Critical evaluation of literary sources

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
  • practicals; students who either begin or continue their studies in an online mode may be required to complete practical 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

  • Practical Report, 40% (3 sides of A4) [ILOs 1-3]
  • 2500-word essay (plus diagrams), 60% [ILOs 1-3]

Reading and References

Essential Reading

1. Stocker, et al. (eds.) (2013) Climate Change 2013: The Scientific Basis Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Cambridge University Press, UK. Also available at

2. Souch C (2003) Getting information about the Past: palaeo and historical data sources. Clifford, N.J. and Valentine, G. (eds), Key Methods in Geography. Sage 195-208

Further reading is provided at the end of each lecture