Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module GEOL2171: Isotopes and Climate

Department: Earth Sciences

GEOL2171: Isotopes and Climate

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


  • None.


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • To use stable isotopes in understanding modern environment and climatic systems.
  • Reconstruct palaeoclimatic variations throughout Earth History using stable isotopes and other proxies.
  • To develop a better understanding of the human impact on the environment and global climate.
  • To understand and analyse future climate change predictions.


  • Stable isotope biogeochemical cycles (e.g., C, N, O, H, S)
  • Carbon cycle and climate (CO2, biological carbon pump)
  • Oceanography and climate (circulation, productivity, temperature)
  • Geochemistry of climate proxies (sediments, ice, speleothems, tree rings, fossils)
  • Climate change theory and processes
  • Climate evolution through the Phanerozoic (long-term and short-term cycles)
  • Anthropogenic global warming: evidence-based theory and IPCC

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • To be able to understand the biogeochemical cycles of the Earth (e.g., carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, sulphur).
  • To use stable isotopes in terms of understanding the environment and climate.
  • To be able to apply the principles of stable isotope geochemistry to quantitative problem solving.
  • Describe and explain the Global Meteoric Water Line in terms of stable isotopes and climate.
  • To describe the carbon cycle in terms of carbon dioxide and climate (modern and ancient).
  • Interpret stable isotope ratios preserved in modern and ancient proxies (e.g., sediments, ice, speleothems, tree rings, carbonate fossils).
  • Describe and discuss the role of the ocean in terms of modulating climate.
  • Describe major events in the Earth's climate evolution and relate them to variations in climatic feedbacks.
  • Understand how chronologies for geochemical proxy records of climate are developed and applied.
  • Critically evaluate the precision and accuracy of a proxy record.
  • To evaluate modern, anthropogenic global warming within the context of climate change over geological time.
  • Acquire the ability to judge the validity of various climate proxy records.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Will have acquired intellectual and practical skills in order to apply stable isotope geochemistry, geological principles and methodologies to develop a greater understanding of the environment and climate (modern and past).
Key Skills:
  • Prepare, process, interpret and present stable isotope data using appropriate qualitative and quantitative methods.
  • Develop a critical evaluation of data and models in terms of past, present and future climate.

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

  • The module is delivered through 1-hour lectures and 2-hour practicals on a weekly basis, that is supported by directed reading.
  • Weekly practicals form an important component of the module by providing practical applications of the lecture material.
  • An in-class practical/written examination will test the students greater understanding, knowledge and application of the topic.
  • Summative assessment is made up of a practical report, poster presentation and in-class test.
  • Guidance on the preparation and structure of reports and posters will be provided.
  • Exam skills related to this topic will also be provided.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 20 1 per week 1 hour 20
Practicals 20 1 per week 2 hours 40
Preparation and Reading 140
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Report 30%
Poster 30%
In-class practical/written assessed test 2 hours 40%

Formative Assessment:

Formative feedback on the practicals throughout the module. This will involve going through answers from the previous week and having dedicated practical sessions to go through all practicals and lecture material (mini-revision sessions).

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