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The University of Southampton

GEOG2006 Quaternary Environmental Change

Module Overview

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 1 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. Section 2 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. Section 3 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.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Have knowledge of various key techniques for reconstructing past environments.
  • Have an understanding of the nature and timing of major environmental changes over the last 2.6 million years (both regional and global).
  • Become acquainted with a variety of methods of palaeoenvironmental reconstruction used for different systems, across a range of sediment types.
  • Become acquainted with some biogeographic implications of Quaternary climate change: the historical development of biomes, large-scale ecosystem dynamics, species migration, and extinction
  • Have knowledge of the range of methods used for dating Quaternary deposits
  • Have an appreciation of the factors leading to the emergence of modern humans in the Quaternary period
  • Become acquainted with the main arguments relating animal and human development to environmental change in the Quaternary, including the rise of agriculture and development of culture.
  • Have practical laboratory skills in the analysis of a record of Quaternary environmental change.


This module examines environmental change in the Quaternary Period (last 2.6 million years) which includes two Epochs – The Pleistocene (2.6 million years to 11,700 thousand years) and the Holocene (11,700 years before present). This is one of the most dramatic periods in Earth history and is often referred to as the last Ice Age. The Quaternary, and particularly the Pleistocene, is also important as it is the period during which most of our landscapes were formed and/or transformed (why Physical Geographers have traditionally studied it). The Holocene is also important as the current global warm period (interglacial) in which our modern world came into being including both the distribution of plants and animals and also the period in which in which human civilisations arose along with the development of agriculture and urbanism. The Quaternary is also the period of geological time about which we have the most detailed knowledge. Two themes run through the course: sources of information on the forms, rates and mechanisms of global environmental change and secondly human adaptation to change and the emergence of different cultural responses over time and space, ultimately leading to humans as agents of change. Both themes require an understanding of how to measure time in the remote and more recent past through a variety of chronological methods. The aim of the course is to provide students with an introduction to the major themes of study and the principal issues of the Quaternary worldwide and the practical skills to undertake their own research into Quaternary environmental change. The emphasis is at the global scale for the main framework of themes with much of the detailed focus on the British Isles - because we know more about Europe and the British Isles than any other area on the globe - and because it is where you are!

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

The module will contain a blend of learning activities. There will be c. 15 basic lectures, encompassing the themes noted above. In the first half of the semester we will run practical classes that will allow students to undertake research on a record of Quaternary environmental change. This will provide training for students interested in undertaking dissertations in a range of topical research theme in this area. In the second half of the semester we will run a seminar class each week, to further develop the content taught in the lectures.

Independent Study114
Total study time150



MethodPercentage contribution
Coursework  (2500 words) 50%
Exam  (2 hours) 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Coursework assignment(s) %
Exam %

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

Linked modules

Pre-requisite: GEOG1001

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