Quaternary Science MSc – A Taster

So, I am almost a term into the Quaternary Science MSc at Royal Holloway (UoL) and despite having coursework to do, I feel it’s high time I provide a quick taster of what the Quaternary Science MSc is all about.

I really wanted to leave RHUL after doing my undergraduate there. Not because I didn’t like the department – it’s an amazing place. It just has this vibe… there is so much support, encouragement and enthusiasm from all the staff; it’s just a truly fantastic place to be. I wanted to leave because Egham is quite a small town and after three years, I felt I had outgrown the area. However, I couldn’t justify leaving the Centre of Quaternary Research (CQR) to do an MSc elsewhere that would not even begin to touch the Quaternary in ways I wanted to… so I stayed. And I am so glad I did, because the past 3 months have been fantastic and i’m learning a lot and I feel like I am part of a special community: the Quaternary community.

The course is intense. People are shocked at the amount of contact time that we Quaternarists receive. It’s 10am-5pm each day for term 1, which equates to ~30hrs p/week. Obviously you then have your coursework on top and any readings you need to do to understand the course content. You also have fieldtrips in the first term which may reduce your time to complete coursework assignments. So far, I have been to Wales, Norfolk and Yorkshire. In April I will go to Scotland. I’ve handed in one piece of coursework, which was work 5% of the MSc; it was a sedimentology and stratigraphy report discussing our findings from Wales and Norfolk. Although a great piece of work, I found it challenging as it wasn’t exactly what I am interested in, but was great as it has provided me with the essentials that I need to understand stratigraphy… the results come out next week, so wish me luck!

Courses so far have been compulsory (i.e. everyone has attended). These include:

– palaeoclimatology

– sedimentology and stratigraphy

– principles of Quaternary research

– palaeoecology, dating methods, quantification

Right now, I am writing up my coursework for the palaeoclimatology coursework (due on Friday 6th Dec 2013). This is a NERC-style grant proposal with a max. word count of 3,000 words, exceeding no more than 4 pages or 3 figures, including size 10, Arial font. I have chosen the title ‘Regional variability of abrupt climate shifts across Great Britain: How does the magnitude and expression of the 8.2kaBP event vary across Great Britain?‘ I’ve chosen this project as I am interested in abrupt climate change and the use of oxygen isotopes in carbonate rich lacustrine sediments. Moreover, recent research by Lane et al. (2013; Geology) has highlighted the importance of studies in the future to investigate the variability of rapid climate events and how their magnitude of expression differs across small-scale regions. I’ve enjoyed this project a lot and it’s definitely given me full peace of mind that I am doing the right thing and that a research career is the way forward for myself.

During the write-up for this coursework, I have also applied for a PhD which utilises isotopes. So another thing I will need some considerable amount of luck for! Although we are encouraged to apply for PhD’s this academic year, it is highlighted that we are fighting against people who have already got an MSc grade under their belt. It seems it doesn’t matter what career route you go, there will always be some level of competition. At least I am enjoying myself and will end up in a career that I am passionate about and love.



John Lowe’s retirement – London Quaternary Lectures at Royal Holloway 2013 – Quaternary Science MSc: old and present


Chris Turney and myself with Antarctic ice, aged from the Younger Dryas at the London Quaternary Lectures at Royal Holloway


Myself on the stratigraphy fieldtrip in Norfolk, November 2013

Course details here: http://www.rhul.ac.uk/geography/coursefinder/mscquaternaryscience.aspx


The Anthropocene: Where do I stand?

The Anthropocene is a relatively newly proposed epoch; first proposed by Paul Crutzen in 2000. I first really heard about it in 2010, when I attended a conference at the Royal Geological Society in Burlington House, London. The idea had captivated me as a young fresher, primarily as the epoch is based around the ideology that humans have impacted the society so much so that we have scarred the landscape; that in years to come, it will be obviously apparent where humans became the dominant species and altered the Earth’s natural equilibrium status.

 Paul Crutzen has stated (as in Slaughter, 2012):

humans have wrought such vast and unprecedented changes to our world that we actually might be ushering in a new

geological time interval, and altering the planet for millions of years. (They). . .contend that recent human activity,

including stunning population growth, sprawling megacities and increased use of fossil fuels, have changed the planet

to such an extent that we are entering what they call the Anthropocene Epoch. . . (It) represents a new phase in the

history of both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the

fate of one determines the fate of the other.


But, this notion has been refuted. Presently, I am not sure where I stand. This blog entry aims to review the reasons for and against the proposal of the Anthropocene: perhaps the most controversial epoch ever to have existed.

 The implication of a new geological epoch, marked primarily upon the accelerated human influence upon the Earth, has implications for society. The first issues that come to my mind are those born from politics and international energy players, for example. The Anthropocene primarily implies that humans are altering the natural balance of the Earth. In some regards, the epoch may be used as evidence for supporting the debate of anthropogenically induced climate change and elevated greenhouse gases. Therefore, it is important to seek an understanding of where arguments are sourced from in order to remove bias. Climate scientists are, in general, empirical and searching for the truth: there are few climate scientists who will exaggerate their findings, as that is not what science is about. I feel that the public often have to put their trust in what scientists say and I feel that it is extremely important that this trust is not violated: we must provide the truth, and only but the truth, even if our findings are inconclusive or perhaps against expectations. I feel it is information derived from politicians that may prove spurious. These players may be caught up in agendas that could lead to biased information. To exemplify, should the Anthropocene be confirmed as a new epoch, it may have vast impacts on political frameworks that relate to climate change policies. The same goes for energy players, car manufacturers and other companies that perhaps contribute to global CO2 emissions. On the other hand, perhaps I am bias because I fall into the ‘climate scientist’ category. But, then again, it may shock you to read that, actually, I sit on the fence on the Anthropocene debate.

Primarily this is because I have read little about this epoch. Secondly, I feel that, looking at the long term geological timescales, the scientific community is perhaps going a bit ‘label’ mad. As was mentioned in the Holocene Climate Change (2013) conference (see Holocene Climate Change Conference 2013 tab at the top), climate scientists have been criticised for calling marginal deviations of the normal climate trend as ‘events’ when perhaps they are not in the same sense as the climatic oscillations seen in the Pleistocene, for example (the period of 2.6million-11.7k years before present). In a way, I feel that the length of evidence evaluated for the proposed epoch is inadequate and fails to be representative of changing climate, in the same way as previous epochs have been defined. Furthermore, leading scientists have yet to convince myself of such a new epoch. For example, top scientist Prof. Tony Brown, has failed on two occasions to clarify exactly how the Anthropocene boundary is determined in his workings. This is noted in previous blog entries and should not be brought up again.

However, there is no denying the exponential increases in CO2 since the Industrial Revolution. This is seen in almost all isotopic studies undertaken within the climatic community. While I was at the CIC in Copenhagen, I was having a look around the isotope lab with a PhD student. He showed me some of his late-Holocene work, and there was a shocking increase of CO2 after the Industrial Revolution. Sporadic data findings such as this makes you realise the impacts that the human population has on the landscape. CO2 rises of this pattern are just not seen in other epochs and it is important to respect these anomalous findings; albeit the popular phrase: ‘correlation does not mean causation’ coming to mind, it is extremely hard not to relate the two issues. Furthermore, climate scientists are able to use a relatively new dating methodology: Cesium137. Since 1952, this element has been found within sediments as a result of nuclear testing; this is a clear sign of the influences that humans have on the landscape. It is global impacts like this that provide clear evidence which can be used to support the notion of the Anthropocene.

As Slaughter (2012) states:

Sceptics have only to contemplate examples like the now-vanished Aral Sea,

the destruction of numerous ocean fisheries, the long-term decline of coral reefs, the scarcity of clean fresh water, the chronic

decline of terrestrial environments and the reality of the ‘sixth extinction’ to recognise, at some level, that something is terribly


Statements like this are shocking because they are true. The Aral Sea has paled into nothingness. Ocean acidification is witnessed around the World, as is water scarcity. And, I must now take the time to herald the work of my favourite photographer: James Balog. Just youtube search him and you will be catapulted into a new, scary world; this world is often ignored by the global community as it is out of our reach and fails to personally affect us. But, glacial melt perhaps affect us more than any other environmental change due to its influence on the oceanic circulation (THC). When you consider these implications, which are smaller than the blink of an eye on geological time scales, the concept of the Anthropocene does not seem as far-fetched. Taking a moment to see these changes from space may help to gain a different perspective:






Time lapse of environmental changes from space (definitely worth a watch):


The recent proposal to scrap climate change from the UK education system is ludicrous, and personally I feel that it is part of a wider political agenda. When you view images of changes such as those shown in this blog entry, it is easy to see that we are at a critical point in a world of changing state. The world is regarded by some to be reaching a tipping point: a point where climatic changes may exceed a critical threshold and be unable to return back to the previous state. When you take all of this into account, the Anthropocene appears to be a more appealing proposal.

Ruddiman would, however, argue that humans have influenced climate over a much longer time period. He argues (particularly well in his book: Plows, Plagues and Petroleum) that since the cultivation of rice paddy fields in Asia ~8,000 years ago, the atmospheric regime of the climate has been altered. Therefore, the notion of the Anthropocene should, in theory, be placed further back in time. This opens a whole can of worms with regards to the present understanding of the Holocene, and in particular, Holocene climate variability. Moreover, previous epochs have been defined by changes in the fossil record. There is presently no rock record of the Anthropocene and therefore its classification cannot be born in the same manner as previous classifications. The notion is particularly complicated as anthropogenically induced impacts on climate are expected to increase over time. Furthermore, extrapolating the signal of anthropogenic and natural climate change is difficult and it is stated in many scientific articles that the different forcing signals are hard to differentiate.

So, after all of this, where do I stand? Well, after watching many Youtube videos of changing landscapes, and what is regarded as anthropogenic changes to the environment, I am a dribbling mess, huddled in the corner wanting to throw myself of a cliff. In some regards, I am disgraced by humanity for meddling with mother-nature to such an extent that our precious world is unrecognisable from its natural state. Reading, physically seeing scientific results and attending conferences, I feel it is undeniable that our climate is changing. However, the logical, scientific part of my mind begs me to ask more questions about the forcing signals of climate change. Modelling will pave the way to better understand these different signals; these are, and will, help to recognise the extent to which anthropogenic forcing is affecting our globe. I feel that until this signal is extrapolated, we cannot categorise these present changes as a new epoch as some of the changes may be natural. So, I feel that climate is changing, but as to whether we can regard it as a new epoch is questionable.


Relative websites:

http://www.planetunderpressure2012.net/anthropocene_welcome.asp – Planet Under Pressure (2012): ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene.’

http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/circ1171/html/cores.htm – Sediment cores and Cesium137

http://e360.yale.edu/feature/the_anthropocene_debate__marking_humanitys_impact/2274/ – a good account of the Anthropocene

Slaughter, R.A., (2012) – ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene,’ Futures, 44, 119-126 http://ac.els-cdn.com/S0016328711002436/1-s2.0-S0016328711002436-main.pdf?_tid=3c145c06-caf8-11e2-a787-00000aacb362&acdnat=1370118008_7e32c4bebf9b9caa131517fbfc10a37c

The Centre For Ice And Climate

The Centre For Ice And Climate

I went to the Centre for Ice and Climate for a week in Copenhagen. It is in affiliation with the Niels Bohr Institute and University of Copenhagen. I was working with Paul Vallelonga in the CFA (Continual Flow Analysis) lab, melting firn from the North East Greenland Ice Stream (NEGIS), as well running NEEM S1 discrete samples. I was fortunate enough to work with Anders Svensson and cut the NEGIS firn for one morning. In addition, I was able to work with the Swansea Tephra Group and cut GRIP ice for tephra analysis. 

It was the most amazing experience and I loved every second of it. It has only enthused my desires to pursue a career in palaeoclimatology!