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This subject examines the nature and causes of past changes in Earth’s climate during the Quaternary Period (the last 2.7 million years), with a particular emphasis on the last glacial-interglacial cycle. It aims to place modern climate and the projections of future global warming into a longer-term perspective, and will allow students to understand why human interference in the climate system may be a legitimate cause for concern. Emphasis is placed on how Earth materials (ice, rocks, sediments, biological materials) record past climate changes, the techniques used to extract this ‘palaeoenvironmental information’, and the principles that govern how this information is interpreted.
A series of lectures covering the theoretical elements of the subject will immediately precede 10 days of field study (in either Tasmania, mainland SE Australia or New Zealand). The field component focuses on how particular environments (e.g. coastal, lake, fluvial, cave, and glacial) preserve evidence of past climate change. Additional lectures and practicals following completion of the field work will focus on the types of analytical methods employed in this field, the nature of the data that are produced and how these are processed and interpreted. By the end of the subject, students will not only appreciate the dynamics of Earth’s past climate and the mechanisms that have forced it, but also the way in which we practice this important and growing field of study.
Note this subject may be taken as the Capstone subject in the Geography major of the BSc. All students, whether they are capstone students or not, will be required to complete online introductory materials that are common across all field classes, and will be invited to a discussion session together at the end of their Capstone study and experience.
Intended learning outcomes
At the completion of this subject, students will have achieved the following objectives:
- An understanding of the nature of past climate changes, i.e. the frequency, magnitude and geographic extent;
- An understanding of the range of driving mechanisms of past climate changes, particularly how they vary according to the time scales considered;
- An understanding of how specific environments and materials preserve evidence of past climate changes;
- An understanding of the advantages and weaknesses of the various ‘palaeoclimate archives’;
- Hands-on field experience in the identification, sampling and analysis of a range of important palaeoclimate archives;
- Experience in organising, analysing and interpreting palaeoclimate data;
- Familiarity with the key literature and current debates on past climates; and
- An understanding of how the current global warming debate fits into the longer-term perspective.
- Ability to conduct library searches to source the latest relevant literature on key topic areas.
- Ability to comprehend some of the current debates in the field.
- Software skills for data handling and graphing, such as Excel.
- Basic introduction to state-of-the-art laboratory analytical methods (e.g. mass spectrometry, microsampling).
- Field skills, especially an ability to recognise landforms and sediments capable of preserving records of environmental change.
- Data interpretation skills, informed by the relevant literature.
- Group field and research activities.
Last updated: 12 November 2021