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Department of 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.


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.

Full details of the course are available in the Part IA Earth Sciences Course Guide.

The sections below give an overview of each module taught within the IA Earth Sciences course.

The Earth's Climate System

Climate matters - it is one of the biggest challenges of our time. You will develop a quantitative understanding of Earth’s climate system using first principles of Earth’s energy balance. Although simplified, it illustrates many of the fundamental concepts of how human industrial and agricultural activity has changed the composition of the atmosphere and altered Earth’s natural energy balance, leading to global warming.  You will explore the Earth’s carbon cycle, looking at the past variation of atmospheric carbon dioxide.  Studying the past history of climate (palaeoclimatology) permits modern and future climate change to be placed into a geologic context, thereby gaining a broader perspective of the magnitude and rates of change.

In today's media-driven world, an understanding of the science behind climate change is 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 in the future.

Minerals, melting, magmatism and metamorphism

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

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 determine 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.


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

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.

Arran Field Trip

A seven day residential field course is run in the Easter vacation to the Isle of Arran on the West coast of Scotland. This intense week of learning brings together all of the topics taught in the course in a field context, ranging from plate tectonics, climate, magmatism and life. The Isle of Arran is a world renowned geological laboratory in the field, and is a perfect location to be introduced to the skills of reading the rock record.

For more information, refer to the Arran field trip page, or the course guide.

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.

Geology beyond the solar system

A transformation in our understanding of planet formation and evolution has occurred since 1995, fuelled by two key observational campaigns: the Kepler mission, which has detected thousands of planets outside our solar system; and the ALMA observatory, which provides unparalleled images of planetary systems being born. One of the most profound results from this flurry of discovery is that the most abundant type of planet in the universe may be rocky and roughly Earth-sized. This realisation begins a new era of geological-uniformitarianism, with our exploration of these new worlds founded on the principles of geology gained from study of the Earth.

Planet Earth: The bigger picture...

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.

Common links

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All course materials can be found on the Earth Sciences Moodle course pages.

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Health & safety

Whether in the lab or out on fieldwork, you need to be aware of your health and safety, and what responsibilities you have to look after yourself and your colleagues. Please refer to the Safety Handbook.

Safety Handbook

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