skip to primary navigationskip to content

Introduction to Part 1A Earth Sciences

The Part IA Earth Sciences course is designed to introduce the science of the Earth to a broad range of students, most of whom are untutored in geology and many who do not intend to become geologists. It is a general introduction to the planet, an overview of what we know and of what we think we do not understand, and is a fully interdisciplinary field with ample room for geologists, biologists, climatologists, chemists, mathematicians and many others.

Investigating the Earth is important, not only for those who hope to practise it as a profession, but for all who wish to be educated in the natural sciences and understand that this is a vast and essentially indivisible subject. Essential knowledge in today's changing world, you will emerge at the end of your first year with an appreciation of the science behind climate change, a broad understanding of the history of life, a feel for all the major events that have gone on over the past four-and-a-half billion years, and a basic knowledge of the Earth as a system: a series of interlinked biogeochemical cycles and physical phenomena. The course also features a week-long field trip to Arran.

Part IA Earth Sciences Course Guide

Earth Sciences teaching reference collection

Photographs and descriptions of the specimens found in the first year Reference Series at the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge. A collection of rocks, minerals and fossils used to aid the first year Geology students in their practical revision.


Part IA Earth Sciences is taught within the Natural Sciences Tripos. We assume that students have a good background in science, but do not assume any specific prior knowledge of either geology or geography. See the requirements page for more information.

Introductory Mineralogy and Petrology

IA Min and Pet

To interpret the Earth, you need to know what it's made of. Properties of rocks such as mean density, mechanical strength and thermal conductivity depend on the properties of constituent minerals, and these in turn depend on the atomic forces and arrangement on a scale of only nanometres. This course looks at igneous rocks - those crystallised from molten magma - and metamorphic rocks - those formed in the solid state from the action of heat and pressure. These sorts of rock are made of grains of minerals just millimetres across, so by using rocks cut thin enough to see through under the microscope, we'll learn how to identify the minerals and uncover the rock's history. We'll study volcanoes and the deep Earth processes that cause them, and look at how solid rocks recrystallise in the depths of mountain belts. A substantial introduction to the fields of Petrology, Mineralogy and Volcanology, the course is fundamental to a basic understanding of many others.

Plate Tectonics

IA Plate tectonics
Hiertzler et al 1966

Split over a number of lecture series, this course provides an introduction to the incredibly important field of Geophysics, and one of it's most important achievements of the last century: the theory of Plate Tectonics. While notions of "continental drift" have been around for hundreds of year a full theoretical framework for understanding the movement of the bulk of the Earth's surface has been established only since the 1970s.

The evidence that changed our mind came only with the undersea exploration and nuclear testing of the Cold War. Magnetic anomalies in oceans were noticed, and observations of earthquakes were made that together led us to believe that the Earth's surface is composed of rigid areas - plates.

Quantifying the full effects of plate tectonics and understanding its implications, particularly for the study of the past, is making rapid progress. The theory affects virtually every branch of the Earth Sciences, from the study of igneous and metamorphic rocks to the formation of sedimentary basins, the generation of oil and gas, global changes in sea level and the evolution of past life.


Credit: Sedgwick Museum

Earth's surface has supported life for at least half of its long history. The fossil record raises many questions. How did life begin? How fast could a dinosaur run, and why are they extinct? How did trilobites see, and why are there llamas in the Andes? How and when did humans evolve? These are just some of the questions to which you'll learn the answer in this course, effectively fossils and the evolution of life. 

A broad introduction to Palaeobiology, the course encompasses the formation of the Solar System, an overview of Earth's extraordinary biosphere and its four billion year history. Although the content is quite biological, this is a multi-disciplinary course and no pre-requisites are necessary.

A carefully integrated series of practicals involving specimens and microscope work complement the lectures, reinforcing and extending your knowledge.

We are a product of evolution, our ancestry goes back to the dawn of life, and we share a rich biosphere that stands on the shoulders of innumerable vanished worlds. Welcome to one of the great scientific journeys.

Sedimentary Processes and Products

IA Sedimentary basins

Water - in rivers and streams - is responsible for moving the vast majority of material over the planet. As such, if we can understand in full how water picks up, moves and deposits this material, we can interpret the majority of the sedimentary rocks, allowing us to reconstruct many landscapes and environments that have existed over the planet's surface in times gone by. This course leads on to many others in the field of Earth Surface Processes and Sedimentology.

The Earth's Climate System

IA Earth climate systems

An introduction to Climate Science and Oceanography, we start from first principles, looking at the Earth's energy budget, before considering the specific magnitude of the effect of greenhouse gases. We are able to reconstruct the carbon cycle, looking at the past variation of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the variability of past climate before looking towards the future.

In today's media-driven world, an understanding of the facts behind climate change is absolutely essential. You will be taught by people undertaking cutting-edge research into climate science, and will be able to appreciate exactly what we do know, what we don't, and what we can expect to learn.

 Britain's Geology: Solving the Jigsaw


The land which now forms Britain and Ireland has had one of the most tumultuous histories of all areas on the planet. Subduction zones, volcanic arcs, mountain belts, various oceans and continental rifts have all played their part in shaping this fascinating region. At different times Britain was part of a vast desert, a series of islands and reefs, in the middle of an ocean or a tropical swampy quagmire. Interpreting the clues in the rock record and piecing together this history has been the challenge of geologists for over a century, and unanswered questions still remain. The embedded video shows the movements of the continents over the last 450 Million Years. Britain is shaded in red.

Dinosaurs and Fossil Vertebrates

Credit: Sedgwick Museum

Vertebrate palaeontology, a branch of Palaeobiology, studies the evolution, ecology and biology of all the animals best-known to us: the vertebrates, of the phylumChordata. Containing the stories of the largest animals to have ever lived, as well as ourselves, the history of these magnificent creatures is one of the greatest to have been played out on the planet. This course focusses mainly on the dinosaurs, perhaps the best known extinct class of vertebrates, although later years' courses also look at many, many other fantastic animals of the last 500 million years.

Planet Earth: the bigger picture

IA Planet Earth

To round off the Earth Sciences course, we look at some of the bigger topical issues that affect us. The problems we regard as hazards and disasters are all experiments that the Earth has carried out before, several times. Learning how to read the evidence helps us to make decisions about how better to prepare to survive them.

As global population soars, and natural resources are strained, we must confront important issues such as our vulnerability to catastrophic natural hazards from earthquakes and volcanoes, what to do about the disposal of nuclear waste, the geologist’s role in energy resources and their responsible management, and how to assess the threat of climate change.

These are real concerns that are becoming urgent and need to be addressed by politicians, public servants, by society - and by scientists. You will be able to use the knowledge of our planet works to follow, evaluate and contribute to the current debates.

...and beyond

In second year the Department of Earth Sciences runs two courses: IB Earth Sciences A, and IB Earth Sciences B, both drawing on different areas from the Earth Sciences IA course. Follow the links to find out more.