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GEO8024 : Environmental Isotopes

  • Offered for Year: 2022/23
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Maarten van Hardenbroek van Ammerstol
  • Lecturer: Dr Andrew Henderson
  • Owning School: Geography, Politics & Sociology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 1 Credit Value: 10
ECTS Credits: 5.0


This module will provide a state-of-the-art overview of how different environmental processes can be tracked using the isotope composition of organic and inorganic materials. This will be done by a combination of lectures and computer practicals. The module aims are as follows:

•       To make students aware of the methods used to analyse isotopes for environmental studies
•       To examine climatological signals in water, ice cores and sediment records, and evaluate different proxies to do this.
•       To examine carbon cycling and food web interactions.
•       To understand the use of isotopes in radiometric dating and geochronology.
•       To provide training in quantitative methods to analyse isotope data from different environments.
•       To use isotope data for the interpretation and quantification of environmental processes.
•       To critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different isotope techniques.

Outline Of Syllabus

Many processes in our environment affect the isotope composition of water, gases, organisms, sediments and rocks. These include the effects of evaporation and precipitation on water in oceans and ice caps, allowing us to use oxygen and hydrogen isotopes to understand shorter-term hydrological cycling, and climatic fluctuations over hundreds to millions of years. We will also investigate the links between organisms and their food using carbon and nitrogen isotopes in food web studies and look at the carbon cycle from an isotope point of view. Finally, the module will cover radiometric dating of a range of different materials including the use of radiocarbon, Pb-210, and uranium-series dating.

The module will be based around a short series of lectures that introduce stable isotopes and the methodology used to produce data. Also, there will be computer practicals on modelling of isotopes in the water cycle and in food webs and calibrating radiocarbon dates and creating age models.

The outline of topics covered is as follows:

Introduction & history of isotope research (seminar and lectures)
-       Discovery of isotopes and development of research field
-       Methodologies to measure stable isotopes

Hydrology and climate at different timescales (lectures & computer practical).
-       Stable O/H isotopes and the water cycle
-       Long-term climate records – part I: Ice core records & Marine records
-       Computer practical: hydrological modelling with stable isotopes

Long-term climate records – part II (lectures)
Marine/lake sediment records; Biogenic silica; Organic matter/remains; Compound specific
-       Speleothems
-       Introduction to the assessment

Carbon cycling and food web interactions (lectures and computer practical)
-       Stable C/H isotopes for tracing sources and sinks in the global carbon cycle; Photosynthesis (C3/C4), chemosynthesis, (microbial) respiration;
Atmospheric CO2/CH4 on long and short timescales
-       Stable C/N isotopes in food webs: Carbon sources; Trophic interactions in food webs
-       Computer practical: Bayesian isotope mixing models in R

Radiometric dating and geochronology (lecture and computer practical): U-series dating; 14C (radiocarbon);210Pb; 137Cs / 241Am
- Computer practical on calibration & age-modelling

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture62:0012:00PiP - could be delivered as synchronous online teaching, if required
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion140:0040:00N/A
Structured Guided LearningAcademic skills activities32:006:00Computer practicals asynchronous online guided learning
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching12:002:00PiP - could be delivered as synchronous online teaching, if required
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching41:004:00PiP - struct Q&A comp pracs/rep - TTd PiP sems - could be synchronous online teaching, if required
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study136:0036:00N/A
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

Module will provide an overview of theory and examples from literature presented in a timetabled seminar and lectures. This will be interspersed with computer practicals where students apply this knowledge and practice data analysis with open source software using instructions available online. One Q&A drop-in session per computer practical and one Q&A for the Report will be timetabled to ensure tailored input. The knowledge and practical skills build up towards the assessment report.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Portfolio1M30Output from three practicals (each 10%)
Report1M701400 words
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

Assessing three computer practicals in a portfolio (10% each, total 30%)) ensures commitment to the practical elements of the module. Practicals will build up towards the Report, where students will independently apply the skills learnt in the practicals by analysing a new data set designed specifically for the Report (70%).

Reading Lists