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Tropical Coastal Environments: Geomorphology and Environmental Change

Module titleTropical Coastal Environments: Geomorphology and Environmental Change
Module codeGEO3224
Academic year2019/0
Module staff

Professor Chris Perry (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

One of the most pressing and fundamental challenges in coral reef science is to project the future for coral reefs and reef islands under rapidly changing climatic and environmental conditions. In this module you will examine the geomorphological and ecological processes that interact to determine the contemporary occurrence and form of coral reefs and coral reef islands, their Holocene growth histories, and how future growth potential may change under changing environmental conditions. Specifically, you will explore broad questions such as

  • How have coral reefs and reef islands responded to past sea level and environmental change?
  • What physical and geomorphological processes operate on contemporary reef and reef islands, and how are these linked to reef landform development?
  • How might reefs respond to future environmental changes?

You will have the opportunity to undertake two research exercises to support your learning. These will form the basis of the module assessment. The first will involve a small group (four people/group) research exercise to investigate the geological/geomorphic development of coral reefs and/or coral reef islands in a geographical region of your choice. This research exercise will be supported by an in-class oral presentation of your developing research ideas, followed by a formal research poster (and Q&A) session. The second research exercise will involve an analysis of video datasets aimed at providing an insight into how tropical coral reef communities respond to major environmental disturbances (specifically their response to sea-surface temperature-driven bleaching events). You will be collecting data to support a quantitative analysis of how bleaching can change reef community composition and coral carbonate production rates. This exercise will provide an opportunity for consideration of appropriate data presentation and analytical (including statistical) approaches, and a chance to gain experience in concise scientific writing through the production of a scientific paper style report. 

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to examine the geomorphology of tropical coral reefs and reef islands, and to consider their responses (past and projected) to environment change. Key themes covered within the module will include:

  • the physical and ecological factors that control reef and reef island occurrence (and how these vary both temporally and spatially as environments and climate change)
  • the physical and ecological processes that control coral reef and reef island form and diversity
  • the controls on, and nature of, the geomorphic development of corals reefs and reef islands over different temporal and spatial timescales
  • and the complex and interacting responses of reefs and reef islands to both natural and anthropogenically-induced environmental change

The small group research presentation exercise will provide experience in oral and poster-based research presentation approaches, whilst marine video data analysis skills will be developed through computer-based practical sessions (using the video analysis software Kinovea). The aim here is increased data collection, graphic and statistical analysis, data interpretation, and scientific writing skills to support employability and future study.

Learning will be supported through exposure to a wide-range of case studies relating to recent and ongoing reef and reef island research in the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific reef-building regions.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Explain how physical and ecological processes interact to determine the contemporary occurrence and form of coral reefs and reef islands
  • 2. Describe the geomorphic models and concepts associated with coral reef and reef island development through the Holocene
  • 3. Discuss the evolving nature and form of reefs and reef islands in response to, and as a function of past, sea-level and environmental changes
  • 4. Evaluate the complex and interacting roles of different natural and anthropogenically-induced environmental changes in terms of reef and reef island form, development and resilience

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Illustrate and discuss the contested and provisional nature of knowledge and understanding
  • 6. Outline a diverse range of approaches to the generation of knowledge and understanding
  • 7. Evaluate a diverse range of specialised techniques and approaches involved in collecting geographical data
  • 8. Describe, apply and evaluate the diversity of specialised techniques and approaches involved in analysing geographical data
  • 9. Assess the nature of change within physical environments
  • 10. Explain the significance of spatial relationships as influences upon physical environments

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 11. Communicate ideas, principles and theories effectively and fluently by written and verbal means
  • 12. Develop a sustained and reasoned argument
  • 13. Formulate and evaluate questions and identify and evaluate approaches to problem-solving
  • 14. Identify, acquire, evaluate and synthesise data from a range of sources
  • 15. Use C&IT effectively and appropriately to select, analyse and present information
  • 16. Effectively and appropriately interpret and use numerical statistical information
  • 17. Undertake independent/self-directed study/learning (including time management) to achieve consistent, proficient and sustained attainment
  • 18. Reflect on the process of learning and evaluate personal strengths and weaknesses
  • 19. Develop reef community and underwater video analysis skills

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan


  • Geomorphology in the tropical coastal zone
  • Key processes influencing reef and reef island development
  • Reef disturbance and change
  • Long-term controls on tropical coastal development

Coral reef environments:

  • Characteristics and occurrence
  • Holocene evolution and responses to sea-level and environmental change
  • Contemporary carbonate production and reef accretion

Reef islands:

  • Reefs as sediment systems
  • Sediment sources, rates of production and depositional processes
  • Reef island form and development

Contemporary and near-future environmental change:

  • Projections of reef and reef-landform change
  • Ecological-geomorphological interactions
  • Projection uncertainties and questions

Reef research data collection and analysis:

  • Small group (in-class) oral and poster presentations
  • Video image analysis of bleaching impacts on coral reef communities and reef carbonate production rates

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching14Lectures
Scheduled Learning and Teaching4Formative oral presentations, discussion and feedback
Scheduled Learning and Teaching21Poster presentation and Q&A session
Scheduled Learning and Teaching12Computer practicals using video analysis software (Kinovea) and carbonate production spreadsheets
Guided Independent Study5Reading and research for in-class discussions
Guided Independent Study40Reading, research and assignment write-up
Guided Independent Study73Analysing, critiquing, reviewing scientific literature


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
In-class small group oral presentation and discussionIn-class1, 7-10, 17-18Peer and tutor feedback

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Small group research poster including presentation 30A31-4, 6-18 Written and oral
Research summary report and data analysis in the form of a scientific paper704 sides A4AllWritten


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Small group research poster including presentationIndividual research poster1-4, 6-18August Ref/Def
Research summary report and data analysis in the form of a scientific paperEssay (2000 words)AllAugust Ref/Def

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The research summary report will be replaced by a 2000 word essay, and the small group research poster presentation will be replaced by an individual research poster. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a 2000-word essay. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will count for 100% of the final mark and will be capped at 40%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Mainly through directed and other reading of primary science literature (i.e., Journal articles). In addition, the following texts are useful either in their entirety or through specific relevant chapters:

  • Aronson R.B. (2010) Geological Approaches to Coral Reef Ecology. Springer
  • Dubinsky Z. And Stambler N (2001) Coral Reefs: An Ecosystem in Transition. Springer pp. 521.
  • Hopley D. (2011) Encyclopaedia of Modern Coral Reefs: Structure, Form and Process. Springer
  • Hopley D., Smithers S.G. and Parnell K.E. (2007) The Geomorphology of the Great Barrier Reef: development, diversity and change. Cambridge University Press. pp. 532.
  • Hubbard, D.K., Rogers, C.S., Lipps, J.H., Stanley, Jr., G.D. (Eds.) (2016) Reefs at the Crossroads. Springer.
  • Perry C.T. & Taylor K.G. (2007) Environmental Sedimentology. Blackwells, Oxford. pp. 441. Chapter 9. Tropical Coastal Environments – coral reefs and mangroves.
  • Sheppard C.R.C, Davy S.K. and Pilling G.M. (2009) The Biology of Coral Reefs. Oxford University Press pp. 333.
  • Slaymaker O, Spencer T. and Embletin-Hamann C (2009) Geomorphology and Global Environmental Change. Chapter 7 – Coral Reefs. Cambridge University Press 528 pp.

And for more general/introductory reading:

  • Woodroffe, D.D. (2002) Coasts: form, process and evolution. Cambridge University Press. pp. 623. Chapter 5 –Reef coasts

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Coral reefs, reef islands, geomorphology, Holocene, sea-level change, environmental change

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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