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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Geosciences : Geography

Undergraduate Course: Volcanoes, Environment and People (GEGR10139)

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
SummaryThis course aims to assess relationships between volcanoes, the environment and people and to investigate how tephra (volcanic ash) layers can be used to study these interactions. Whilst tephra layers provide valuable information on volcanic activity and its impacts, they also offer a means of studying wider environmental change and the potential impacts of the environment on people and humans on the environment. We will study volcanic eruptions, investigate how their direct and indirect effects can be used to exemplify extreme events, and how tephra layers can be used as chronological tools (through tephrochronology) to assess rates of change and their spatial patterns. This requires a multidisciplinary approach and we will combine a number of disciplines ranging from geology, volcanology, glaciology, geomorphology, soil science, climatology, history and archaeology.

Course description Volcanoes, Environment and People (VEP) begins by introducing volcanoes, eruptions, tephrochronology, geochemical analysis and dating techniques in the first four weeks. Firstly we will introduce the different types of volcanic activity and the implications for tephra production. Next, several case studies are used to illustrate 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. The principles and practice of tephrochronology will be introduced using mainly examples from the North Atlantic region. 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 and human-environment interactions. Geochemical methods of characterising tephra layers will be considered next, and we will discuss how this can be used to identify sources, types of eruptions and correlate deposits. We will also have a hands-on session where we will demonstrate different types of tephra and allow you to see samples prepared for analysis. The dating of tephra layers is considered next and we will discuss the various methods of obtaining ages, including using historical information, ice core records, and radiometric dating. There will also be an exercise in calibrating radiocarbon dates and the chronological interpretation of a complex tephra stratigraphy at an Icelandic archaeological site.

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 interaction of volcanic activity and glaciers in Iceland, floods and the dispersion of tephra from eruptions in 1918, 1996, 2010 and 2011. We will also discuss how tephrochronology can help us to identify and date eruptions and floods from Eyjafjallajökull 6-7th and 10th centuries AD, as well as dating glacial geomorphological features and aiding our understanding of past climatic fluctuations. Before moving onto consider how tephrochronology can be applied to understand human-environment interactions, the extent of soil erosion in Iceland will be discussed and the reasons why Icelandic soils are so susceptible to being eroded. After introduction the Norse colonisation and settlement of the North Atlantic region and Iceland in particular, the next three lectures will discuss how 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, catastrophe cusps and early warning signals.

The course finishes with a fieldtrip to East Lothian, which provides an opportunity to study exposures of Carboniferous age tephra layers and apply knowledge gained in the course.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Information for Visiting Students
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Academic year 2023/24, Available to all students (SV1) Quota:  40
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, Programme Level Learning and Teaching Hours 4, Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours 164 )
Assessment (Further Info) Written Exam 50 %, Coursework 50 %, Practical Exam 0 %
Additional Information (Assessment) Class Work: Degree essay summary to be handed in at the end of the lecture in Week 4
Degree assessment: 2,000 word essay (50%) to be handed in in Week 8
and a 24 hour Take-home exam ¿ two short essays (50%)
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 Week 3 and Week 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 discussions 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 word) 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
Arnalds, O. (2015) The Soils of Iceland. World Soils Book Series. Springer, Dordrecht. pp 183.
Loughlin, S.C., Sparks, S., Brown, S.K., Jenkins, S.F. and Vye-Brown, C. (Eds.) (2016) Global Volcanic Hazards and Risks. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. pp 410.
Lowe D.J. (2011) Tephrochronology and its application: A review. Quaternary Geochronology 6, 107-153.
Scmidt, A. et al (2015) Volcanism and Global Environmental Change. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp 339.
Sigurdsson, H., Houghton, B., McNutt, S., Rymer and Styx, J. (2015) The Encyclopedia of Volcanoes (Second Edition). Academic Press, London. pp 1143.
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Not entered
Course organiserDr Anthony Newton
Tel: (0131 6)50 2546
Course secretaryMiss Leigh Corstorphine
Tel: (01316) 502572
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