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GEOG283 Climate Change: The Past

Semester Two, 18 points

Lectures: Thursday & Friday: 9am – 9.50am
Labs: either Monday or Friday: 11am - 1.50pm

Course 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 paleoclimatology. 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 paleoclimate 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 paleoclimatology 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 paleoclimatology 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 modelling.

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.

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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.

Palaeoclimatology is the study of climate prior to the period of instrumental measurements. The focus of this course is on the Quaternary period which spans approximately 1.8 million years. This period is of critical importance in Earth's history because it is marked by oscillations in climate that had a dramatic impact on the geosphere and biosphere including changes in sea levels, vegetation distribution, soils and landforms. These changes and the legacy of these changes continue to have impacts on environments today. In the last 20,000 years alone the area of the Earth covered by glaciers has been reduced to one-third of what it was during the last glacial maximum; waters released by melting ice have resulted in sea level rise in excess of one hundred metres, land unburdened by ice has risen by several hundred metres, vegetation belts have swung through the equivalent of tens of degrees of latitude, rainforests have expanded, desert sands have advanced and retreated, lakes have flooded and shrunk and many species of mammals have become extinct.

Paper title Climate Change: The Past
Paper code GEOG283
Subject Geography
EFTS 0.15
Points 18 points
Teaching period Semester 2 (On campus)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $1,092.15
International Tuition Fees (NZD) $5,004.75

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EAOS 111 or GEOG 101
GEOG 389
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 Coordinator: Professor Sean Fitzsimons

Teaching Staff: Dr Chris Moy
Dr Christina Riesselman

Paper Structure

The lecture programme will be divided into two sections which will examine Quaternary stratigraphy and dating techniques and the principal data sources of palaeoclimatic information.

Assessment is 60% internal (on-going during the semester) and 40% external (final examination).

Teaching Arrangements

2 lectures per week and 8 x 3 hour practicals scheduled over the 13 weeks of semester.

Half-day field work (weather permitting).

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 who successfully complete 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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Semester 2

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system


Stream Days Times Weeks
L1 Monday 10:00-10:50 28-34, 36-41
Tuesday 09:00-09:50 28-34, 36-41


Stream Days Times Weeks
Attend one stream from
P1 Monday 14:00-16:50 29, 32-34, 36-41
P2 Tuesday 14:00-16:50 29, 32-34, 36-41