University Homepage
DRPS Homepage
DRPS Search
DRPS Contact
DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Geosciences : Geography

Undergraduate Course: Volcanoes, Environment and People (GEGR10103)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Geosciences CollegeCollege of Science and Engineering
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 10 (Year 3 Undergraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryThe course addresses the origins, dispersal and environmental/cultural impacts of volcanic ash (tephra) and how tephrochronology, the identification, dating and mapping of these ash layers, can help us to understand both environmental change and human interactions with the environment. Global assessments of volcanic activity and the production of tephras provide the underpinning to a discussion of the principles of tephrochronology and its application in the 3-D environmental reconstruction. We discuss the local and global impacts of volcanic eruptions and how the tephra layers they generate can be geochemically analysed, correlated and dated within environmental records and archaeological sequences. Iceland provides the focus for the course as the island contains both examples of every type of volcanic activity known on Earth and world-class tephrochronologies. Case studies of both the use of tephrochronology to understand environmental change and the impact of volcanic activity on both the environment and people are considered in lectures and discussed in tutorials; theoretical understanding is married with a practical hands-on experience with tephras in the class room and a field excursion to assess geological exposures of tephra in East Lothian.
Course description The course begins with an introduction to different types of volcanic activity and the implications for tephra production. This leads on to a discussion on the environmental and cultural impacts of eruptions. As the recent Icelandic examples demonstrated, even relatively small eruptions can have serious consequences for distant modern societies. Tephra layers themselves will be discussed next and the princples and practice of tephrochrolonogy, mainly through examples from the North Atlantic region and elsewhere. This will include the important concepts of tephra isochrones, intervals of time and environmental tracers. The teleconnections between tephra layers, ice cores, tree rings and ocean cores are also assessed. It will be shown how tephrochronology can be used to record not only volcanic histories, but also establish, date and evaluate rates of environmental change. It is possible to recreate 3D palaeolandscapes using tephra layers and using these, assess human interactions with the environment. It is also crucial to be able to accurately identify tephra layers, correlate them to other deposits from the same eruption and link them back to their sources; so we will also discuss how to geochemically characterise tephra deposits. Tephrochronology is not possible without dating and we will discuss the various methods of obtaining ages of tephra layers, including historical and ice core records and radiometric dating. We will have a hands-on session where we will demonstrate different types of tephra and allow you to see samples prepared for analysis. There will also be an exercise in the chronological interpretation of a complex tephra tratigraphy at an Icelandic archaeological site. A fieldtrip to East Lothian will provide an opportunity to study exposures of Carboniferous age tephra layers and apply knowledge gained in the course. There will be a short group presentation on your findings from the fieldtrip.

The rest of the course builds on the introductory knowledge gained during the first four weeks to discuss in more detail the application of tephrochronology to volcanology, glaciology, archaeology, environmental studies and human ecodynamics. We will explore the consequences of the interaction of volcanic activity and glaciers in Iceland and the dispersion of tephra. We will also discuss how tephrachronology can be used as a toll to date glacial geomorphological features and aid our understanding of past climatic fluctuations. Tephrochronology can be applied to studying cultural and environmental change through chronology and landscape reconstruction. Iceland provides a superb natural laboratory to study these interactions between the environment and people. Precisely dated tephra layers also enable the rates of change to be calculated, which elsewhere is very difficult to measure. We are able to explore notions of changing resilience, threshold crossing events and catastrophe cusps. In many different areas of research important distinctions have to be made as to the significance of extreme events (low frequency-high magnitude), gradual change (high frequency- low magnitude) and conjunctions (when a combination of circumstances leads to a step-wise change). The extraordinary chronological framework that tephrochronology provides allows us to study these concepts.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Additional Costs None
Information for Visiting Students
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Academic year 2017/18, Available to all students (SV1) Quota:  44
Course Start Semester 2
Timetable Timetable
Learning and Teaching activities (Further Info) Total Hours: 200 ( Lecture Hours 22, Fieldwork Hours 6, Feedback/Feedforward Hours 2, Summative Assessment Hours 2, Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours 168 )
Assessment (Further Info) Written Exam 60 %, Coursework 40 %, Practical Exam 0 %
Additional Information (Assessment) Written Exam: 60%, Course Work: 40 %, Practical Exam: 0%.
Class assessment: As outlined in course handbook

Degree assessment: One two-hour examination (2 questions) (60%) AND one essay (2000 words) (40%)

Overall mark for the course (i.e. degree coursework and examinations) of at least 40 to pass.
Feedback In order to attain the learning outcomes you have to complete online quizzes and these provide one indication of knowledge acquisition.
You will take part in practical sessions in weeks 3 and 4 and verbal feedback given on your understanding of the physical nature of tephra and tephra stratigraphy.
You MUST read the papers selected for tutorials and participate fully in the related discussion as these six meetings (weeks 2-9) are key parts of the feedback process and provide important opportunities for you to assess the progress of your learning.
In week 4 you are required to produce a 1 page (between 400-600 words) summary of your Degree Research Paper; written comments are provided on each submission and there is a related tutorial discussion.
The fieldtrip also provides additional opportunities to discuss stratigraphy and the principles of tephrochronology with staff in a practical setting.
Verbal feedback will also be given following your oral presentation of your fieldwork exercise. The final revision session also provides an opportunity to gain feedback on your examination preparations.
Exam Information
Exam Diet Paper Name Hours & Minutes
Main Exam Diet S2 (April/May)2:00
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. Develop a detailed understanding of the principles and practice of tephrochronology
  2. Evaluate the use of tephras to reconstruct environmental change and to assess the role of tephras as agents of environmental change
  3. Assess the significance of different types of change and recognise the causes of threshold-crossing events
  4. Develop detailed knowledge of how to use tephrochronology to assess volcano-environment interactions, environmental and cultural change, human-environmental interactions and impacts of volcanism on people
  5. Seek out and comprehend the essential relevant findings from literature in unfamiliar fields which will also mean you gain an understanding of the ways in which the subject is developed
Reading List
1. Arnalds, O. (2015) The Soils of Iceland. World Soils Book Series. Springer, Dordrecht. pp 183.

2. Heiken, G. (2013) Dangerous Neighbours: Volcanoes and Cities. Cambridge University Press.

3. Marti, J. and Enrst G.G.J. (2008) Volcanoes and Environment. Cambridge University Press.

4. Scarth, A. (2009) Vesuvius: a biography. Terra Publishing, Harpenden.

5. Scarth, A. (2002) La catastrophe: Mount Pele¿e and the destruction of Saint-Pierre, Martinique. Terra Publishing, Harpenden.

6. Scarth, A. (1999) Vulcan¿s Fury. Yale University Press, London.

7. Scmidt, A. et al (2015) Volcanism and Global Environmental Change. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, pp 339.

8. Sigurdsson, H., Houghton, B., McNutt S.R., Rymer H. and Stix, J. (2000) Encyclopedia of Volcanoes. Academic Press, San Diego.
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Not entered
KeywordsGEGR10103 Volcanoes,tephrochronology
Course organiserProf Andrew Dugmore
Tel: (0131 6)50 8156
Course secretaryMiss Kirsty Allan
Tel: (0131 6)50 9847
Help & Information
Search DPTs and Courses
Degree Programmes
Browse DPTs
Humanities and Social Science
Science and Engineering
Medicine and Veterinary Medicine
Other Information
Combined Course Timetable
Important Information