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Unit information: Tracing and Observing the Earth System (10cps) in 2015/16

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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 1A (weeks 1 - 6)
Unit director Professor. Robinson
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Earth Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science

Description including Unit Aims

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.

Students will find the third year unit EASC30017 Oceanography of value. Students who have not taken EASC30017 will be expected to complete additional introductory reading.

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 Information


Assessment Information

This unit will be assessed through a combination of a 3-hour closed book exam in January (80%) and through participation in literature based discussion sessions lead by student presentations (20%). Assessment will be completed in accordance with the University Regulations and Code of Practice for Taught Programmes, available online at

Reading and References

  • Seinfeld, J.H. and Pandis, S.N. (2006) Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry, 2nd edition, John Wiley and Sons, 1203pp.
  • Sarmiento, J.L. and Gruber, N. (2006) Ocean biogeochemical dynamics, Princeton University Press, 526pp.
  • Zeebe, R.E. and Wolf-Gladrow, D. (2001) CO2 in seawater: equilibrium, kinetics, isotopes, Elsevier Oceanography Series 65, Amsterdam, 346pp.
  • Ruddiman, W.F. (2000) Earth’s climate: past, present and future, W.H. Freeman, New York, 465pp.
  • Keeling, R.K. (2006) The Atmosphere, Treatise on Geochemistry, vol. 4, Elsevier, 364pp.
  • Killops S. and Killops V. (2005) Organic Geochemistry 2nd Ed., Blackwell Publishing, 393pp.
  • Talley, Pickard, Emery and Swift, Descriptive Physical Oceanography An introduction (sixth Edition) (2011) Elsevier Ltd.
  • 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.