EARTHSCI 732 : Reconstructing Environmental Change


2023 Semester One (1233) (15 POINTS)

Course Prescription

Examines key issues in environmental change with an emphasis on the South West Pacific during the Quaternary. Methods applied to reconstruct and constrain the timing of environmental change are explored, including glacial geomorphology, environmental isotopes, micro- and macro-fossil remains such as pollen, diatoms and wood, and relevant geochronologic techniques. No formal prerequisite, but an understanding equivalent to EARTHSCI 307, GEOG 334 or GEOLOGY 303 will be assumed.

Course Overview

A detailed knowledge and understanding of the nature and rate of environmental changes during the Quaternary is not only intrinsically interesting but also provides our only real guide to what might befall us in the future. To rephrase the Principle of Uniformitarianism: "the past is the key to the future." Environmental changes interpreted from the geological, geomorphological and biological records are characterised not so much by slow, gradual change, but rather, by extreme, rapid and often short-lived events, especially during the Quaternary (the last 2.6 Myrs of Earth history). There may be lessons for our climate and environmental futures in the analogues for the speed and magnitude of changes we can identify in selected records of past climates and environments discussed during this course.

This course explores aspects of the nature and drivers of Quaternary terrestrial records of environmental change, focusing on the Southwest Pacific region. The objectives are to:

  • Review of our present understanding of Quaternary paleoclimates and paleoenvironments in the context of theory, field evidence and research methods.
  • Explain the collection, analysis and interpretation of physical and paleoenvironmental data ranging from terrestrial and lake sediments (and their components) through to tree rings.
  • Introduce dating techniques used to establish the timing and drivers of major climatic events identified.
  • Introduce equipment and measurement procedures used to collect and analyse the materials used for reconstructing past climate environmental change.

Course Requirements

No pre-requisites or restrictions

Capabilities Developed in this Course

Capability 1: Disciplinary Knowledge and Practice
Capability 2: Critical Thinking
Capability 3: Solution Seeking
Capability 4: Communication and Engagement
Capability 5: Independence and Integrity
Capability 6: Social and Environmental Responsibilities

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this course, students will be able to:
  1. Understand and critically evaluate the use, and interpretation of, a range of paleoclimate reconstruction tools including dendroclimatology, geomorphologic settings, lake sediments, biotic remains, and environmental isotopes. (Capability 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6)
  2. Develop and demonstrate an understanding of the suite of dating tools used to constrain and help explain the timing of the events interpreted from the paleoclimatic time-series. (Capability 1, 2, 3 and 6)
  3. Develop and demonstrate an understanding of the field and laboratory work that is needed to extract, identify and interpret environmental changes and their drivers. (Capability 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6)


Assessment Type Percentage Classification
Final Exam 40% Individual Examination
Assignments 20% Individual Coursework
Essay 25% Individual Coursework
Presentation 10% Individual Coursework
Discussions 5% Individual Coursework
Assessment Type Learning Outcome Addressed
1 2 3
Final Exam


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Key Topics

  • Introduction: Nature of Quaternary environmental change
  • Records of past environmental change: dating the records and applications
  • Ancient swamp Kauri and tropical coral-based climate reconstruction
  • Long-term natural and human impacts on the environment: the stories contained in lake sediments
  • Extracting records of natural hazards from lake sediments

Special Requirements

  • 3 days field work required.
  • School of Environment chemical  and sediment laboratory inductions required to be completed.

Workload Expectations

This course is a standard 15 point course and students are expected to spend 10 hours per week involved in each 15 point course that they are enrolled in.

For this course, you can expect 2 hours of lectures, 4 hours of reading and thinking about the content and 4 hours of work on assignments and/or field work per week as required.

Delivery Mode

Campus Experience

  • Attendance is expected at scheduled activities including labs/tutorials/seminars to receive credit for the components of the course.
  • Lectures/seminars will be available as recordings. Other learning activities including labs/discussions/field trips will not be available as recordings.
  • The course will include live online events including group discussions and presentations.
  • Attendance on campus is not required for the exam.
  • The activities for the course are scheduled as a standard weekly timetable.

Learning Resources

Course materials are made available in a learning and collaboration tool called Canvas which also includes reading lists and lecture recordings (where available).

Please remember that the recording of any class on a personal device requires the permission of the instructor.

Recommended text books:
  • R.S. Bradley, 2015. Paleoclimatology: Reconstructing Climates of the Quaternary, Academic Press, 3rd Edition.
  • J.J. Lowe and M.J. Walker, 2015,Reconstructing Quaternary Environments, Addison, Wesley andLongman, 3rd Edition.
Note: most text books on the topic are out of date by the time they are published. Since this field of research is changing and growing rapidly, we will regularly be referring to readings from often multi-disciplinary journal articles to guide your learning and ensure that the teaching is up to date.

Student Feedback

During the course Class Representatives in each class can take feedback to the staff responsible for the course and staff-student consultative committees.

At the end of the course students will be invited to give feedback on the course and teaching through a tool called SET or Qualtrics. The lecturers and course co-ordinators will consider all feedback.

Your feedback helps to improve the course and its delivery for all students.

Student feedback is a vital consideration for course improvement. Consequently, we are intending to have more fieldwork and related exercises, whilst spending time in the lab getting to grips with some of the major tools used in reconstruction of past environments and climates.

Academic Integrity

The University of Auckland will not tolerate cheating, or assisting others to cheat, and views cheating in coursework as a serious academic offence. The work that a student submits for grading must be the student's own work, reflecting their learning. Where work from other sources is used, it must be properly acknowledged and referenced. This requirement also applies to sources on the internet. A student's assessed work may be reviewed against online source material using computerised detection mechanisms.

Class Representatives

Class representatives are students tasked with representing student issues to departments, faculties, and the wider university. If you have a complaint about this course, please contact your class rep who will know how to raise it in the right channels. See your departmental noticeboard for contact details for your class reps.


The content and delivery of content in this course are protected by copyright. Material belonging to others may have been used in this course and copied by and solely for the educational purposes of the University under license.

You may copy the course content for the purposes of private study or research, but you may not upload onto any third party site, make a further copy or sell, alter or further reproduce or distribute any part of the course content to another person.

Inclusive Learning

All students are asked to discuss any impairment related requirements privately, face to face and/or in written form with the course coordinator, lecturer or tutor.

Student Disability Services also provides support for students with a wide range of impairments, both visible and invisible, to succeed and excel at the University. For more information and contact details, please visit the Student Disability Services’ website

Special Circumstances

If your ability to complete assessed coursework is affected by illness or other personal circumstances outside of your control, contact a member of teaching staff as soon as possible before the assessment is due.

If your personal circumstances significantly affect your performance, or preparation, for an exam or eligible written test, refer to the University’s aegrotat or compassionate consideration page

This should be done as soon as possible and no later than seven days after the affected test or exam date.

Learning Continuity

In the event of an unexpected disruption, we undertake to maintain the continuity and standard of teaching and learning in all your courses throughout the year. If there are unexpected disruptions the University has contingency plans to ensure that access to your course continues and course assessment continues to meet the principles of the University’s assessment policy. Some adjustments may need to be made in emergencies. You will be kept fully informed by your course co-ordinator/director, and if disruption occurs you should refer to the university website for information about how to proceed.

The delivery mode may change depending on COVID restrictions. Any changes will be communicated through Canvas.

Level 1: Delivered normally as specified in delivery mode
Level 2: You will not be required to attend in person. All teaching and assessment will have a remote option.
Level 3 / 4: All teaching activities and assessments are delivered remotely

Student Charter and Responsibilities

The Student Charter assumes and acknowledges that students are active participants in the learning process and that they have responsibilities to the institution and the international community of scholars. The University expects that students will act at all times in a way that demonstrates respect for the rights of other students and staff so that the learning environment is both safe and productive. For further information visit Student Charter


Elements of this outline may be subject to change. The latest information about the course will be available for enrolled students in Canvas.

In this course students may be asked to submit coursework assessments digitally. The University reserves the right to conduct scheduled tests and examinations for this course online or through the use of computers or other electronic devices. Where tests or examinations are conducted online remote invigilation arrangements may be used. In exceptional circumstances changes to elements of this course may be necessary at short notice. Students enrolled in this course will be informed of any such changes and the reasons for them, as soon as possible, through Canvas.

Published on 01/11/2022 10:43 a.m.