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Unit information: Soils and the Critical Zone in 2021/22

Unit name Soils and the Critical Zone
Unit code EASC20037
Credit points 10
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2D (weeks 19 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Buss
Open unit status Not open

Mandatory units in Year 1 of an Environmental Geoscience programme (BSc, MSci or MSci with Study Abroad)



School/department School of Earth Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science

Description including Unit Aims

This unit is an introduction to the biology, mineralogy, chemistry and physics of soils, including how soils form and evolve, methods of soil classification, the global distribution of soil types, the diversity and role of macro- and micro-organisms in soils, and how moisture and heat move within soils. The unit takes a modern approach by placing soils in the integrated framework of critical zone science, wherein the entire portion of the terrestrial Earth that supports life (the critical zone) is viewed from a holistic perspective where compartments (such as soils) and their processes and interfaces are part of the whole system.

Key aims of the unit will be to learn the basics of soil science as listed above as well as the feedbacks between soil processes and other parts of the critical zone and the implications of these feedbacks for soil sustainability and functions, regional and global biogeochemical cycles, and climate feedbacks.

In addition to the final summative assessment, formative assessment and feedback is provided by way of quizzes and activities throughout the unit and on a partial draft of the scientific report 2 weeks before the final due date.

Intended Learning Outcomes

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

  • Describe (i) the nature and function of soils, (ii) the main horizons and layers in soil profiles, (iii) the role of soil organisms in environmental biogeochemistry, (iv) how soils are classified, and (v) the global distribution of soil types.
  • Explain how in soils (i) secondary minerals are formed from weathering products and transformations of primary minerals, (ii) water and gas move and interact, and (iii) heat is transferred.
  • Categorise critical zone regimes based on geochemical and physical depth profile data and use this information to (i) make predictions about the sustainability of soils and their functions and (ii) interpret the effects of critical zone processes to biogeochemical and climate cycles.
  • Solve basic quantitative problems in soil physics and chemistry.

Teaching Information

The unit will be taught through a combination of

  • asynchronous online materials and, if subsequently possible, synchronous face-to-face lectures
  • synchronous office hours
  • asynchronous directed individual formative activities and exercises
  • guided, structured reading
  • practical work in the laboratory
  • fieldwork

Students who either begin or pursue their studies in an online mode may be required to complete practical 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 Information

  • Coursework (100%) comprising a 3,000 word scientific report based on the data collected in the field and in practicals


If this unit has a Resource List, you will normally find a link to it in the Blackboard area for the unit. Sometimes there will be a separate link for each weekly topic.

If you are unable to access a list through Blackboard, you can also find it via the Resource Lists homepage. Search for the list by the unit name or code (e.g. EASC20037).

How much time the unit requires
Each credit equates to 10 hours of total student input. For example a 20 credit unit will take you 200 hours of study to complete. Your total learning time is made up of contact time, directed learning tasks, independent learning and assessment activity.

See the Faculty workload statement relating to this unit for more information.

The Board of Examiners will consider all cases where students have failed or not completed the assessments required for credit. The Board considers each student's outcomes across all the units which contribute to each year's programme of study. If you have self-certificated your absence from an assessment, you will normally be required to complete it the next time it runs (this is usually in the next assessment period).
The Board of Examiners will take into account any extenuating circumstances and operates within the Regulations and Code of Practice for Taught Programmes.