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GEOG389 Climate Change: The Past

NO: not offered in 2018

Coordinator: Professor Sean Fitzsimons


Climate Change: The Past is essentially about reconstructing past climates for the period before instrumental records. This multidisciplinary area of research and teaching is also known as palaeoclimatology (or paleoclimatology if you live in North America). Working beyond the instrumental record requires the use of proxy data: data that is preserved in natural archives such as landforms, sediments, tree rings or glaciers. The use of proxy data comes with some inherent challenges which include requirements for understanding how climate signals become embedded in the archive, being able to identify the non-climatic signals and of course we have to have the means of dating the events if we are to understand how timing and sequence of climate changes. Once we are in possession of such data we are able to enquire into the causes and mechanisms of climate change. The argument has often been put that once we understand the causes of climate change from the climate experiments that have been conducted on the Earth in the past then predictions of future climate change and their impacts on earth surface processes will be much more reliable.

The nature of palaeoclimate studies is inherently interdisciplinary and lies at the interface of several traditional branches of academic study including: botany, climatology, ecology, hydrology, geography, geology, geophysics, and engineering. The interdisciplinary nature of the subject means that palaeoclimatology is characterised by rapidly evolving knowledge of earth processes that is frequently driven by technological developments in dating or the extraction of proxy data form natural archives. Although there is a strong field tradition in palaeoclimatology current practice includes a wide range of approaches across the spectrum of field mapping and description of landforms, drilling and coring for stratigraphic records, use of remote sensing technologies, cutting-edge chemistry and geophysics and numerical modeling.

Regardless of your academic background you will find approaches and techniques that are familiar to you in this course and it will open your eyes to new ways of looking at and studying the recent climates experienced on Earth.

If you choose to study Climate Change: The Past at the University of Otago you will be exposed to one of the most dynamic and intriguing field sites on earth: The Southern Alps. In the Southern Alps the interactions between the tectonic processes and atmospheric circulation have led to uplift and erosion rates that are amongst the highest on earth.

This paper, like many paleoclimate papers in universities is taught at intermediate (200-level) to advanced levels (300-level). The principal difference between the second year paper (GEOG283) and the third year paper (GEOG389) is that the expectations are greater in terms of the depth of your knowledge and understanding of reconstructing climate from proxy evidence and you are expected to engage in more independent learning. Both papers share a common lecture programme and within the programme third year students undertake an independent project.

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Character and definition of the Quaternary period, dating methods, a review of proxy data sources, geomorphology and climate change, Quaternary environments of the Southern Hemisphere; laboratories as required.

Paper title Climate Change: The Past
Paper code GEOG389
Subject Geography
EFTS 0.1500
Points 18 points
Teaching period Not offered in 2018, expected to be offered in 2019
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $1,038.45
International Tuition Fees (NZD) $4,492.80

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GEOG 101 or EAOS 111 and 36 further GEOG or GEOL points
GEOG 283
Schedule C
Arts and Music, Science
The content of the paper assumes that students have undertaken at least one introductory course in Physical Geography, Earth Science, Ecology or Geology.
Teaching staff
Course Co-ordinator: Professor Sean Fitzsimons
Teaching Arrangements
Laboratory Programme 40%
Take-home tests 20%
Final examination (2 hours) 40%
Bradley, R.S. (2015) Paleoclimatology: Reconstructing climates of the Quaternary Elsevier.
Graduate Attributes Emphasised
Teamwork, communication skills.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
Learning Outcomes
Students completing this paper will gain:
  • The ability to 'read' landscapes: to understand how they have formed and how they change over time
  • Understanding of the relationships between tectonic and surface processes
  • Understanding of earth surface processes associated with hillslopes, rivers, coasts and glaciers
  • Knowledge of the strength and behaviour of rock, soil and water
  • Knowledge and understanding of the erosion, transportation and deposition processes
  • Knowledge of a range of techniques used in the investigation of earth surface processes and landforms

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Not offered in 2018, expected to be offered in 2019

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system