AG-853 Arctic Terrestrial and Marine Climate History (10 ETCS)






April 15, 2024


August 05, 2024


September 20, 2024

Oxfordhalvøya, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard. Previously an arm of the sea, the glacially-dammed lake Brånevatnet in the distance was impounded by the advance of Etonbreen in response to Neoglacial climate cooling. Etonbreen is now undergoing significant retreat due to current climate warming. This area of Svalbard, visited during AG-353’s predecessor course AG-348, possesses detailed records of landscape and biospheric responses to changing Quaternary climate with evidence of multiple glacial advances, higher sea levels, lake core records, and changing macro- and microfossil assemblages. Photo by Mark Furze.

Grade:Letter grade (A through F)
Course Cost:
Course Capacity Min/Max:10/20 students
Language of instruction:English
Examination support material:Bilingual dictionary between English and mother tongue

Course requirements

Enrolment in a relevant PhD programme. Students should have a well-developed understanding of Quaternary sedimentology, stratigraphy, and climate history. The course is intended for PhD students in Quaternary geology, marine geology and physical geography. It links to AG-326, AG-826 and AG-342 or AG-842, and students who have accomplished or applied for these courses will be given preference.

Academic content

Physical, geochemical, and biogenic characteristics preserved in geological, geomorphic, and sedimentary archives underpin the deciphering of Earth’s past climate. This hands-on course provides an overview of the acquisition and application of such proxies during the Quaternary period, with a specific focus placed on Arctic environments. The course takes advantage of relatively easy access from UNIS to the fjords and field sites around Svalbard. Students are trained in fingerprinting the signatures of Quaternary climate change – both marine and terrestrial – to develop a comprehensive and holistic understanding of the past interactions between cryosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. 

After training in Arctic field safety, the course starts with introductory lectures on Svalbard geology and history of concepts concerning the Quaternary Svalbard-Barents Sea climate and glacial events, as well as key proxy techniques. 

Postglacial sea level change and glacioisostatic rebound history across Svalbard will be reviewed and investigated through field and laboratory analysis. The characteristics of indicative subaerial and submarine glacial landforms and their application in reconstructing the glacial sedimentary environments will be explored. Arctic sediment types and lithofacies, the logging techniques as well as chronological challenges in the Arctic will be explored using acoustic and sedimentological methods. Students are introduced to climate proxy approaches, including existing (e.g., micropalaeontology, geochemistry) and emerging (e.g., biomarkers) methodologies, which will be reviewed, discussed, and applied. Key processes and products of glacial marine and terrestrial sedimentation from the glacier margins to their distal setting in the submarine as well as subaerial settings will be covered.   The uniqueness of this course lies in that students receive advanced field training, working with both terrestrial and marine archives of palaeoclimatic change. This will be complemented with instruction via the study of literature, state-of-the-art lectures, laboratory work, student-led seminars, and discussions.  

Learning outcomes

Upon completing the course, the students will have good understanding of Quaternary stratigraphical successions on Svalbard and the Arctic, broad knowledge of Svalbard and Arctic geomorphology and landscape evolution on different temporal and spatial scales through glacial cycles, as well as an understanding of chronological and stratigraphic challenges on Svalbard and in the Arctic. They will develop a good understanding of the evolution of high-latitude continental margins from fjords to continental slopes in the Quaternary and be able to critically analyse the geological record in the light of existing theories on Quaternary and current climatic changes. Further, the students will have a solid understanding of various proxy methods employed in the reconstruction of Earth’s climate from marine and terrestrial archives, and a broad knowledge of the advantages and drawbacks of selected proxies. 

This course builds primary competencies applicable to higher-level geoscience fields relevant to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals: SDG13 Climate Action; SDG14 Life Below Water; SDG15 Life On LandThis course specifically addresses the following UN Sustainability Development Goals: SDG13 Climate Action.

Upon completing the course, the students will:


  • K1 identify, describe, and explain Quaternary stratigraphic successions and climate history of Svalbard and the Arctic.
  • K2 identify, describe, and analyse major lithofacies and landform assemblages encountered in glacial-deglacial sequences and their relationships to long-term climatic fluctuations in the Arctic.
  • K3 apply, describe, and explain a range of physical, biological, and chemical proxy methods used to elucidate climatic and environmental changes in Arctic marine and terrestrial environments and evaluate their suitability and fidelity.
  • K4 describe and explain the structure and evolution of high-latitude continental margins from the fjords to the continental slope in the Quaternary.
  • K5 critically analyse the geological records of fjords and formerly glaciated continental margins in light of the processes that have shaped them and formulate hypotheses from them.


  • S1 apply advanced lithostratigraphic, sedimentological, and proxy techniques to terrestrial and marine records in the field and laboratory.
  • S2 map, log, and sample complex terrestrial and marine stratigraphic sequences for a range of palaeoenvironmental indicators and carry out an independent research project.
  • S3 analyse and interpret field and laboratory data, discussing findings and formulating hypotheses in the context of current theories and ideas on Quaternary climate history. 
  • S4 perform integrated spatial and temporal analysis of terrestrial and submarine stratigraphic records and glacial landform assemblages.
  • S5 interpret the extent and dynamics of former ice masses and reconstruct the glacial and marine sedimentary processes and environments based on the above-mentioned analyses.
  • Demonstrate proficiency in Arctic survival and safety techniques

General competences

  • C1 master the most important elements of geological research projects: analyse and critique literature for status on studied area/objects, carrying out field and laboratory research, analysing data and communicating results to fellow students/scientists, and be able to critically evaluate scientific literature and reports.
  • C2 present observations and interpretations in accordance with state-of-the-art protocols for data documentation and handling.
  • C3 communicate and discuss, both orally and in writing, current academic concepts and theories and contribute new hypotheses regarding Quaternary environmental and climate evolution in Svalbard and the Arctic.
  • C4 report findings and to formulate scholarly arguments when delivering lectures/seminars, reporting scientific finds, and presenting data.
  • C5 plan and execute expeditions in the Arctic.
  • Demonstrate competence in academic leadership and be able to take leading roles in the field work and discussions.
  • Work independently as well as within a team.

Learning activities

The initial lectures are followed by seminars, where each student participant gives an oral presentation on a selected subject concerning the Quaternary and climate history of Svalbard, based on in-depth study of the literature. Field school will be conducted during a 5-7 day research expedition. Fjords and field sites visited will be different between years, but the overall aim is to visit areas where novel data can be collected from both marine and terrestrial archives. During the expedition, geological, geomorphological, and palaeoclimate data will be obtained from various glacial marine and terrestrial environments. These data will be discussed aboard the vessel and in the following classroom and laboratory exercises, if possible (subject to the timing of the fieldwork). Key sites on land will be visited for recovering lacustrine sediment records, mapping and sampling stratigraphies, and describing signatures of past environmental change (raised beaches, glacial landforms etc.). The fieldwork will give students hands-on experience of various data collection, sampling, and laboratory analysis procedures, under supervision. The PhD students will have a chance to lead a group of MSc students in the field and during the following lab work. 

The PhD students will report their field results in the form of a short scientific publication where data and observations collected during the field work will be analysed in the context of earlier published knowledge of the Svalbard Quaternary palaeoenvironmental history. Laboratory analyses and the individual report will be completed during 2-3 weeks of supervised time at UNIS, after the field school (subject to timing of the research expedition). The participants are offered individual tutoring and advice, where the supervising professors will discuss individual student’s competence development throughout the course.


  • Preassignments, reading etc. – preparatory work: 15 hours.
  • Lectures: 20 hours
  • Seminars (students active): 15 hours
  • Laboratory work: 20 hours
  • Exercise hours: 10 hours
  • Field work (students active): 64-80 hours
  • Work on field/lab, logs, reports, assignments during course period: 90 hours
  • Self studies/reflections/reading: 50 hours

Compulsory learning activities

All compulsory learning activities must be approved in order to sit the exam.

  • Active participation in seminars
  • Lab exercises
  • Fieldwork


All assessments must be passed in order to pass the course.

Each assessment is graded, and subsequently combined into a single grade. Partial grades for each assessment will be available.

Percentage of final grade
Pre-excursion presentations 25 %
Group field poster report 40 %
Group field oral presentation35 %