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Unit information: Tracing and Observing the Earth System (10cps) in 2019/20

Please note: Due to alternative arrangements for teaching and assessment in place from 18 March 2020 to mitigate against the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, information shown for 2019/20 may not always be accurate.

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Unit name Tracing and Observing the Earth System (10cps)
Unit code EASCM0039
Credit points 10
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Professor. Robinson
Open unit status Not open

EASC30017 *



School/department School of Earth Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science


This unit will cover the observational and analytical approaches used to trace the earth and environmental processes that underpin our understanding of the Earth System. Topics will include the use of isotopic and chemical tracers that track movement of energy and mass around the major reservoirs of the surface Earth (biosphere, lithosphere, geosphere) and the transformations of chemical state that govern the Earth's environment.

We will seek to understand the major controls on these tracers on the modern Earth with a view to using them to understand the past, particularly, but not limited to Pleistocene, Holocene and Anthropocene timescales. We will also discuss the major changes that the ocean-atmosphere-climate system has undergone over Earth history and the context that provides for understanding the modern climate system.

* The Level H unit EASC30017 Oceanography provides valuable background for this unit and it is recommended that undergraduate students have taken it in preparation. MSc Palaeobiology students, and undergraduate students unable to take EASC30017 in Year 3, must discuss their background knowledge with the unit director prior to selecting this unit as an option, and will be expected to complete additional introductory reading identified by the unit director before the unit commences.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit students will be able to:

  • outline the basic logic behind the use of a range of isotopic and chemical tracers of Earth System processes
  • understand the application of these tracers to the study of the present and past Earth system;
  • outline the basic strategies for direct and remote observations of the Earth and to choose between different methods for different applications
  • discuss climate forcing and mechanisms across a range of timescales;
  • understand the concept of climate sensitivity and how we estimate its magnitude from the geological record;
  • critically evaluate the evidence for a changing world presented in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, against a backdrop of palaeoclimate data
  • synthesise data from a range of scientific sources (especially journal articles) into a quantitative understanding and presentation of the operation of key tracers of the Earth system

Teaching details

Lectures, student-led presentations and discussions

Assessment Details

50% written coursework in the form of a scientific journal article (3000 words)

30% student-led talks and discussion (talks 20%, discussion 10%)

20% peer review of written coursework

Reading and References


  • IPCC, 2013. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds)]. Cambridge University Press UK and New York. 1535pp. doi: 10.1017/CB09781107415324.


  • Elderfield, H. (ed.) (2003) The oceans and marine geochemistry, Treatise on Geochemistry, volume 6 (series editors Holland, H.D. and Turekian, K.K.), Elsevier, Amsterdam.
  • Killops S. and Killops V. (2005) Organic Geochemistry 2nd Ed., Blackwell Publishing, 393pp.
  • Kump, L.R., Kasting, J.F. and Crane, R.G. (2004), The Earth System, 3rd edition, Pearson/Prentice Hall
  • Libes, S.M. (1992), An Introduction to Marine Biogeochemistry, John Wiley and Sons
  • Ruddiman, W.F. (2000) Earth’s climate: past, present and future, W.H. Freeman, New York, 465pp.
  • Sarmiento, J.L. and Gruber, N. (2006) Ocean biogeochemical dynamics, Princeton University Press, 526pp.
  • Talley, Pickard, Emery and Swift, Descriptive Physical Oceanography An introduction (sixth Edition) (2011) Elsevier Ltd.
  • Zeebe, R.E. and Wolf-Gladrow, D. (2001) CO2 in seawater: equilibrium, kinetics, isotopes, Elsevier Oceanography Series 65, Amsterdam, 346pp.