Skip to main content

Quaternary Science

Search Royal Holloway

Quaternary Science

MSc
  • Option 1 year full time or 2 years part time
  • Year of entry 2021
  • Campus Egham

The course

Study Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway, University of London and you’ll receive comprehensive postgraduate training on the time-dependent processes that affect environmental change, helping you to understand and confront some of the most profound issues of our time.

You’ll acquire an advanced knowledge and understanding of key issues within Quaternary Science, including high-resolution palaeoenvironmental records, high-precision dating and multi-proxy approaches to the investigation of past environmental changes.

The Department of Geography is one of the leading centres for international geographical research in the UK. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework our research environment was recognized as overwhelmingly world class.

The staff and facilities of the Centre for Quaternary Research (CQR) at Royal Holloway provide a wide range of opportunities, including participation in internationally significant research programmes in Quaternary science and links with potential employers. This consortium of staff constitutes the strongest teaching team in the UK for the provision of Masters' teaching in the field of non-marine Quaternary earth science and environmental change. You’ll have the chance to contribute to this leading research culture with your own individual research project.

Study a Masters degree in Quaternary Science and you’ll develop a thorough understanding of many contemporary environmental issues, including climate change, biological responses to environmental change and soil erosion. and be well placed to pursue a rewarding career in your chosen field.

Core Modules

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of the processes that lead to the accumulation of sediment sequences, becoming familiar with the strengths and limitations of sediment sequences as archives of palaeoenvironmental change. You will learn how to record sediment characteristics and attributes in the field and explain the main techniques used to construct terrestrial stratigraphies. You will consider the issues associated with constructing stratigraphies within the fragmented terrestrial record and examine the problems of relating these stratigraphies to climatic events in the continuous marine isotopic record. You will also analyse the use of terrestrial stratigraphies in interpreting climatic events and transitions.

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of the nature and process of climate forcing factors during the Quaternary, including external factors, such as tectonics and orbital forcing, and internal factors, such as ocean circulation, ice sheets, and greenhouses gases. You will look at the archives available to provide Quaternary palaeoclimate records, including ocean and lake sediments, ice cores, and tree rings, and how available proxies are used to reconstruct past climates, such as stable isotopes, microfossils, sedimentology, radiogenic isotopes and biomarkers. You will examine the modelling methods used to reconstruct past climates, such as box, intermediate complexity, and the general circulation model (GCM), and gain an overview of Quaternary climate thesholds, cycles and major events, including onset of Northern Hemisphere glaiation, intensification of the Walker circulation, and the Mid-Pleistocene revolution.

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of important palaeoecological proxy methods used to reconstruct Quaternary environments and biotic assemblages. You will look at the methods used to obtain quantitative estimates of past environmental conditions using palaeoecological data. You will consider the principal methods used to date Quaternary sequences and their limitations, and combine these with chronological data in order to construct realistic age models from which the timing, rate and persistence of environmental changes can be inferred. You will also examine how these procedures and their outcomes fit into the wider models of past environmental change and their potential for testing models of future environmental change.

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of the essential field techniques used in Quaternary research, including remote sensing, surveying, mapping, coring and other methods. You will learn how to integrate field data and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) with geographical information systems (GID) to generate and interpret landform models. You will become proficient in the use of graphics for Quaternary sediment logs and other purposes, and consider how you present information, both orally and in the form of webpage design. You will also look at approaches to mapping and interpreting landforms and sediments in the field, acquiring a background in the history of glaciations in Scotland ahead of the fieldwork you will conduct in the Highlands.

  • In this module you will develop your oral presentation skills. You will explain and critically evaluate the context, methods, main findings and academic significance of a piece of research in Quaternary science to an audience composed of experts in this field. You will need to synthesise, present, analyse and interpret different types of Quaternary Science data, and the audience will be invited to ask questions following your presentation.

  • In this module you will plan and conduct field-based investigations that address key modern research questions in Quaternary Science. You will visit the Western Highlands of Scotland, spending a sustained period in the field to gain in-depth experience of a range of field methods, including landform mapping, instrumental surveying, sub-surface coring, stratigraphic logging and applied numerical modelling. You will look at the extent, timing, rate and causes of growth and demise of the last glaciers to occupy the Western Highlands. You will work as part of a team for the integration of linked field investigations and data synthesis, and give an oral presentation of your field-based experimental results under mock-conference constraints. You will also present your research results in poster form.

  • You will design, execute and report a piece of professional-level research in an area of Quaternary science of your choosing. You will identify and conceptualise your research question, and undertake fieldwork and laboratory analysis in order to collect, synthesise and interpret different types of Quaternary science data. A member of academic staff will act as your supervisor, and you will be expected to give an oral presentation of your dissertation proposal to the wider department. You will provide a project plan which outlines the timescales and resources required to successfully complete your investigation, and for laboratory-based dissertations, you may receive direct training in specialist techniques from your supervisor. Your final submission will include a written report that includes maps and graphic presentations of your results.

Optional Modules

There are a number of optional course modules available during your degree studies. The following is a selection of optional course modules that are likely to be available. Please note that although the College will keep changes to a minimum, new modules may be offered or existing modules may be withdrawn, for example, in response to a change in staff. Applicants will be informed if any significant changes need to be made.

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of the theory and methodology of Quaternary pollen analysis. You will look at pollen morphology, pollen identification, field and laboratory techniques, pollen counting, construction and zonation of pollen diagrams, and interpretation of pollen diagrams in terms of past flora, vegetation, landscape and environment. You will consider the strengths and the weaknesses of pollen analysis as a tool in Quaternary research and examine the factors which influence the assessment and interpretation of pollen-analytical data.

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of the use of Coleoptera as environmental and climatic indicators. You will look at the recovery and extraction of insect remains from sediments and their identification using comparative collections and published keys. You will consider their use for stratigraphical correlation and quantification of past conditions using approaches such as the mutual climatic range method (MCR). You will examine the reasons for discrepancies between palaeoclimatic reconstructions derived from different paleoecological data sets, and assess the limitations of using insect remains for stratigraphic correlation. 

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of the application of micromorphology in the study of ancient sediments and soils. You look at how sections are sampled in the field and laboratory, learning how thin sections are manufactured, the timescales for the preparation of the slides, and the costs associated with their production. You will consider the use of petrological microscopes for the description of Quaternary sediments and the use of descriptive techniques and summary sheets for communicating the findings of microscale analsis. You will make process-based interpretations of thins section to develop a palaenviornmental reconstruction and critically examine the micromophological techqniue in a variety of sedimentological contexts.

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of the processes of luminescence signal accumulation, storage and stimulation. You will look at the methodologies used to isolate and measure the luminescence signal of minerals commonly used in luminescence dating. You will consider the principles, forms and reliability of environmental dose rate evaluation and produce equivalent dose and environmental dose rate values, with associated values of statistical uncertainty, and hence luminescence age estimates.

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of the basic taxonomy and identification techniques associated with a selection of microfossil groups. You will look at the key strengths and weaknesses relating to diatoms, foraminifera and testate amoebae when undertaking Quarternary investigations. You will collect, present and interpret data from these groups, and apply the principles of microfossil analysis to produce Quaternary environmental reconstructions.

  • In this module you will develop a theoretical and practical understanding of the value of mammalian fossil material in Quaternary studies and its use in Paleolithic zooarachaeology. You will look at site formation processes and techniques for the collection, processing and analysis of fossil vertebrate remains. You will learn basic identification skills in a number of key fossil vertebrate groups and consider the nature of the vertebrate fossil record with regard to taphnomy. You will consider Pleistocene vertebrate faunal histories and their use in biostratigraphy and palaecological reconstruction, examining early hominin practices relating to mammlian remains.

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of the key issues in Late Pleistocene glacial meltwater palaeohydrology and Holocene alluvial systems. You will consider how Late Pleistocene meltwater pulses influence palaeoclimate and the role of glacial lake outburst floods in causing regional to local scale catastrophic changes in the landscape. You will look at the roles of allogeneic versus autogenic drivers of change in Late Quaternary fluvial systems, including control on fluvial terrace formation and preservation. You will also examine Holocene climate change and flooding through evidence from palaeoflood hydrology, using geomorphological mapping and coring, and floodplain stratigraphy, to reconstruct floodplain environments.

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of the methods of, and problems associated with chironomid identification. You will look at the occurrence, biology and ecology of chironomids, considering the limitations and advantages of chironomid data in various environmental and palaeoenvironmental contexts. You examine the use of chironomids in palaeoecology to reconstruct and quantify climate change, eutrophication and acidification, and compare the use of chironomids with other environmental indicators.

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of the techniques used for constraining past and present glacier dynamics. You will look at the physical processes of ice flow and mass balance, considering the limitations and advantages of reconstructing past ice sheets from glaciological and glacial geological data. You will examine the key principles of ice-sheet and glacier modelling using quantitative geographical information systems (GIS) and remote sensing of glaciers. You will analyse the role which glaciers and ice sheets play within the climate and ocean system, and see how radar data is used to understand their dynamics and thermal regime.

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of the scientific underpinnings of tephrostratigraphy and tephrochronology. You will look at the methodologies used to identify and correlate tephra, considering the potential for improving age model by integrating tephra with other dating and correlation methods. You will learn how to extract distal ash from host sediments, identify microscopic tephra and evaluate tephra chemical data. You will also examine how to integrate tephra with various dating methods.

  • In this module you will develop an understanding of sediment charcoal analysis in Quaternary records. You will look at the present distribution of fires in different biomes, considering relative environmental drivers, such as climate, vegetation and human interaction. You will assess the temporal evolution of fire, and the mechanisms maintaining natural and anthropogenic systems. You will also examine fire ecology in key biodiversity hotspots, the impact of fire on vegetation structure and composition, and learn basic programming skills in R.

You will benefit from small group learning and an intense but friendly atmosphere, and will receive individual mentoring and career advice from our staff (both from your personal tutor and a dissertation supervisor).

Assessment is carried out by a variety of methods including coursework, practical exercises, field reports and a dissertation.

Explore Royal Holloway

All undergraduates starting with us in 2020 onwards have the opportunity to take a Placement Year, which will add even more value to your studies.

There are lots of exciting ways to get involved at Royal Holloway. Discover new interests and enjoy existing ones

Heading to university is exciting. Finding the right place to live will get you off to a good start

Whether you need support with your health or practical advice on budgeting or finding part-time work, we can help

Discover more about our 21 departments and schools

Find out why Royal Holloway is in the top 25% of UK universities for research rated ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’

They say the two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why

Discover world-class research at Royal Holloway

Discover more about who we are today, and our vision for the future

Royal Holloway began as two pioneering colleges for the education of women in the 19th century, and their spirit lives on today

We’ve played a role in thousands of careers, some of them particularly remarkable

Find about our decision-making processes and the people who lead and manage Royal Holloway today