The Quaternary period is the last 2.6 million years of changes on Earth, and includes multiple ice ages. The syllabus can be divided into three main parts, and includes a number of lectures, practicals and seminars:
Section one provides an introduction to the fundamental principles of Quaternary science and examines the concepts underlying stratigraphy and correlation before considering different dating techniques used to provide chronologies for the individual units and sequences. Quaternary studies are of limited use without a clear idea of chronology. The ability to estimate rates of change in environmental processes and the return periods of events as well as to make correlations between events are all vital to Quaternary science. Many different techniques have been developed to estimate the age of different sediment types. The module then moves on to discuss the processes involved in the formation of the different types of sediments - the raw materials of Quaternary science used to provide evidence for past environmental change. Practical sessions will allow first-hand experience of the skills needed to undertake studies of Quaternary Environmental Change bringing together the different fundamental principles. These practicals will lead to the coursework assessment for the module.
Frequent and dramatic climatic changes are the hallmark of the Quaternary period. This will be explored through the use of sediments, palaeoecology and chronology of the Pleistocene at a global scale, as well as our own region of the British Isles and North West Europe. The module considers the important aspects of marine and atmospheric processes as agents of change between glacial and interglacial cycles across the Pleistocene and into the warm Holocene. Specific focus will be given to the Lateglacial period, the most recent termination from the last glacial to our current interglacial (the Holocene), from which rapid climate oscillations are associated with marked biotic and physical changes across the globe, including megafaunal extinctions.
This section considers in more detail the second Epoch in the Quaternary – the Holocene. It covers both the major climate changes, including the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age, and the major phases of human development in terms of agriculture and urbanisation. The module focuses on the environmental impacts of human activities as well as the ways in which climate has played a part in human culture. The final lectures on the Anthropocene look at the meaning of this newly defined period and consider what lessons we may take from Quaternary history that can be applied to the modern world.
Seminar sessions associated with sections 2 and 3 will focus on key papers from certain topics introduced in lectures.