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Antarctica: Science from a Frozen Continent

Module titleAntarctica: Science from a Frozen Continent
Module codeGEO3454
Academic year2020/1
Module staff

Dr Katy Sheen (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

The study of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean provides critical insights into the processes that govern global-scale climate variability and change. Due to the remote and unchartered Antarctic environment, science research there is still in its infancy, and the future response of the region to global change is under vigorous debate. The dynamic systems surrounding Antarctica are an active area of research, at the forefront of scientific discovery. In this module you will explore the Antarctic atmosphere, the dynamics of polar ice, and in particular the circulation of the Southern Ocean.  You will learn about traditional and novel methods of observing Antarctic physical processes, with a focus on two cutting-edge research studies in the Southern Ocean:

  • the DIMES project – a pioneering five-year field study based in the remote Southern Ocean which made the first dedicated measurements of abyssal ocean mixing and its drivers. This study has strong societal relevance, as our understanding of fundamental biogeochemical processes such as carbon cycling is highly sensitive to models’ representations of Southern Ocean mixing;
  • seismic oceanography, an exciting, novel technique that utilises acoustic reflections to investigate oceanic structure at unprecedented resolutions.

You will also consider human interaction with the polar region, including the history of exploration and the future presence of humans in Antarctica. Lectures will be supported by seminars, invited speakers, journal papers and practical classes that may include data analysis, tank experiments and boat excursions.

Module field trips may have to be moved online/replaced in the event of continued COVID-19 lockdown/social distancing rules. Practical classes may also have to be performed as interactive remote demonstrations.

Module aims - intentions of the module

Through a series of lectures and practical sessions you will:

  • Gain a broad overview of the physical processes operating in the linked ocean-ice-atmosphere system of Antarctica and how they interact with the global climate system
  • Gain understanding of physical concepts in oceanography and data analysis through both a theoretical and a practical, inquiry-based approach
  • Understand how key physical processes in Antarctica and the Sothern Ocean are measured by studying field studies and research initiatives
  • Apply these ideas to question how the Antarctic is a driver of, and responder to, global climate change, and form opinions on the future of human presence in Antarctica

Through the seminars and assessments, you will develop skills relevant to future employment. You will be encouraged to use the coursework to develop your own interest in an area of Antarctic science, consider real-world observations, and apply theory to practical situations, which will develop your skills in problem-solving and linking theory to practice. You will develop your ability to identify key demands of tasks, manage your time effectively, work collaboratively in groups, and present your ideas effectively.

The module content is updated every year to explore topical research areas, some of which are being carried out in the department, and some of which are of global relevance. We will explore cutting-edge research, for example by investigating the mixing mechanisms that drive the deep waters of the global oceans back to surface around Antarctica, or the controls on the stability of the Antarctic cryosphere. You will learn about the tools required to study such problems, and explore how such processes are measured in the field.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

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

  • 1. Review the physical processes operating within the Antarctic continent and the Southern Ocean
  • 2. Discuss the mechanisms through which these processes are impacted by, and influence, the global climate system
  • 3. Critically evaluate the implications of anthropogenic climate change, and the increased presence of human activity on the future of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean
  • 4. Describe and understand a range of techniques which research scientists use to quantify and understand physical processes within the atmosphere, ice and oceans of Antarctica
  • 5. Summarise comprehensively basic physical concepts in oceanography
  • 6. Discuss in detail some key recent research papers in Antarctic science

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

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

  • 7. Describe in detail and analyse essential facts and theory across a sub-discipline of geography
  • 8. Analyse and evaluate independently a range of research-informed literature and synthesise research-informed examples from the literature into written work
  • 9. Identify and implement, with limited guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for solving a range of complex problems within geography
  • 10. With minimal guidance, deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within geography
  • 11. Describe and evaluate in detail approaches to our understanding of geography with reference to primary literature, reviews and research articles

ILO: Personal and key skills

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

  • 12. Devise and sustain, with little guidance, a logical and reasoned argument with sound, convincing conclusions
  • 13. Communicate effectively arguments, evidence and conclusions using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 14. Analyse and evaluate appropriate data and complete a range of research-like tasks with very limited guidance
  • 15. Work in a small team and deal proficiently with the issues that teamwork requires (i.e. communication, motivation, decision-making, awareness, responsibility, and management skills, including setting and working to deadlines)

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

The syllabus will be based on (but not limited to) the following topics:

  • An introduction to Antarctic science and exploration
  • The Antarctic atmosphere
  • Physical concepts in oceanography
  • Turbulence in the ocean
  • An introduction to Southern Ocean circulation and dynamics
  • Case study of a pioneering Southern Ocean field study: DIMES
  • Case study on Seismic Oceanography
  • Antarctic Ice
  • How will Antarctica and the Southern Ocean respond to, and impact, future global change?
  • Human presence in Antarctica

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 Teaching10Lectures
Scheduled Learning and Teaching7Seminar/workshop/discussion sessions
Scheduled Learning and Teaching3Practical sessions (e.g. lab, data analysis, field work) and discussion. These sessions will be modified/adapted if impacted by continuing COVID-19 lockdown/social distancing measures.
Guided independent study130Additional reading, research and preparation for module assessments


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Short answer questions during lectures Ongoing throughout module1-14Oral
Contribution to seminar discussions and practical sessionsOngoing throughout moduleAllOral
Short presentation during lectures 5 minutes – ongoing throughout module1-9; 11-14Oral

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
Essay401000 words1-14Written
Open book examination: data analysis or problem-solving task45Three open book exam tasks spread throughout term with 1-2 days to complete1-14Written
Group presentation1510 minutes – may be conducted remotelyAllWritten and Oral


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

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay1-14August Examination Period
Open book examination: data analysis/problem solving tasksOpen book examination1-14August Examination Period
Group presentationIndividual presentation (5 minutes – may be conducted remotely)1-14August Examination Period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certified reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The group presentation is not deferrable because of its practical nature and the need to complete the assessment task within a group. 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 further assessment. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Basic reading:

  • Tally, Pickard, Emery and Swift, 2011. Descriptive Physical Oceanography: An Introduction (Sixth Edition). Academic Press
  • Bridgeman and Oliver, 2006. The Global Climate System. Pattern, Processes and Teleconnections, Cambridge University Press
  • Rintoul, The Southern Ocean in the Earth System
  • King and Turner, 1997. Antarctic Meteorology and Climatology, Cambridge University Press
  • Wells, 1997. The Atmosphere and Ocean, a physical introduction. Wiley, Chichester
  • Berkman, 2001. Science into Policy: Global Lessons from Antarctica, Academic Press
  • McGonigal and Woodworth, 2005. Antarctica: The Blue Continent, Frances Lincoln
  • Watlon, 2013. Antarctica: Global Science from a Frozen Continent. Cambridge University Press
  • Stewart, 2008. Introduction to Physical Oceanography
  • Thorpe, 2005. The Turbulent Ocean. Cambridge University Press

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Antarctica, Southern Ocean, climate change, atmosphere, ocean, ice, polar, physical oceanography

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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Module co-requisites


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