Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)


Department: Geography


Type Open Level 2 Credits 20 Availability Available in 2023/24 Module Cap Location Durham


  • None


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • This module aims to provide students with an overview of the global carbon cycle and other major biogeochemical cycles that are vital to life on Earth.
  • This module combines theory from geography, biology and geochemistry to characterise the ways in which energy and matter move between Earth’s different spheres (lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and atmosphere). It examines the natural and anthropogenic processes that impact biogeochemical cycles over different timescales and introduces the ways in which geochemical signals can be used to interpret the impact of physical, biological and human processes operating in the environment. This module provides a foundation in geochemistry for geographers to address wider contemporary issues relating to climate change and environmental management.


  • An overview of the global carbon cycle, considering the major pathways and processes that operate, across a range of timescales and spatial scales
  • Introduction to geochemistry and the use of elements as tracers to better understand environmental processes
  • Introduction to biogeochemical cycles of other major elements in the Earth System (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus, metals) and their links to life
  • Inorganic geochemistry: Exploring how elements cycle through the atmosphere, lithosphere and hydrosphere
  • Organic geochemistry: The building blocks of life; organic matter production and degradation; links to the global carbon cycle including a consideration of reservoirs, fluxes and residence times
  • Isotope geochemistry: How isotopes can be used as tracers of environmental processes
  • Human impacts: How natural elemental cycles can be perturbed and how geochemical tracers can improve understanding

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Describe geochemical data in the context of environmental processes
  • Demonstrate a basic understanding of what controls the concentration and cycles of elements in a range of physical environments
  • Identify key processes in the carbon cycle
  • Demonstrate awareness of how biogeochemical cycles operating in a single catchment can combine to impact at the global-scale
  • Assess the relative impact of human activities on biogeochemical cycles using geochemical tracers
  • Assess contrasting concepts and theories to explain spatial and temporal trends in elemental composition in different environments
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Examine and describe patterns and trends in geochemical data
  • Understand appropriate sample preparation procedures for analytical geochemistry
  • Understand a range of analytical methods in environmental geochemistry
  • Understand precision and accuracy of geochemical measurements
  • Assess how geochemical data can be used as ‘proxies’ for modern and past environmental conditions and processes
  • Understand appropriate field sampling and analytical techniques
Key Skills:
  • Examine and describe patterns and trends in geochemical data
  • Critically interpret and effectively present scientific data
  • Describe geochemical data in the context of environmental processes
  • Work individually and as a group to generate and interpret data used for the individual summative report

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • The module uses a range of teaching, learning and assessment techniques
  • Lectures will provide the breadth of coverage and subject overview required by the aims and learning outcomes. These will be supplemented where appropriate by recommended additional reading which students will use to extend the information in the lectures. Students will also draw on learning experiences from the data practicals, workshops, laboratory sessions and the fieldwork.
  • Data practicals will be undertaken individually or in groups and will provide ‘hands-on’ experience with real data, real world environmental issues, and the methods used to interpret and present geochemical data. These will relate to concepts introduced in the lectures and provide a forum in which to investigate and question key concepts/issues in more detail. Formative feedback will be provided in verbal form during the sessions and in the following lecture, and in written form by way of a 'model answer'.
  • The fieldwork and laboratory practicals will provide training in key methods in environmental geochemistry, including sample collection, preparation, and geochemical analysis. They will also provide an understanding of technical aspects of geochemical analyses (accuracy, precision). The data collected will form the content of the summative (coursework) assessment.
  • Workshops will allow students to work in groups to analyse, visualise and discuss geochemical data generated from the laboratory practicals.
  • Drop-in Sessions will provide students with the opportunity to seek guidance on summative assignment.
  • The unseen examination will assess the key skills described above, and provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of environmental geochemistry, and their ability to critically evaluate the concepts introduced in the course.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 14 Weekly 2 hours 28
Data practicals 4 Varies 1.5 hours 6
Laboratory Practicals 4 Varies 3 hours 12
Fieldwork 2 Term 1 1 hour 2
Workshops 2 Varies 2 hours 4
Drop-in Sessions 1 Term 2 1 hour 1
Preparation and Reading 147
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Individual report on laboratory practical Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Individual report on laboratory practical Max 6 pages A4 100%
Component: Examination Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Online 24 hour unseen examination 2 hours (recommended) 100%

Formative Assessment:

Formative feedback is provided throughout the module via discussion of topics during the lectures, practicals and workshops. Ahead of the summative assessment, students will be required to produce a draft figure using data generated in the laboratory. Students will receive feedback during a lecture discussion session.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University