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Earth Science Dynamics, Cycles & Timescales


Admission requirements

There are no formal course prerequisites, but a basic understanding of Earth processes as introduced in parts of Global Challenges: Sustainability is desirable.

The level of Physics and Chemistry as expected for successful completion of the course is final year high school level.

Mathematics: students are expected to independently carry out calculations involving surfaces and volumes, logarithms, and exponentials (both 10-based and e-based), as well as simple differential equations in a spreadsheet environment.


System Earth is influenced by forces that can be understood from the main disciplines of the Sciences: chemistry, physics and biology. Where in other courses in the Earth, Energy & Sustainability Major humankind is identified as part of Earth processes, and vulnerable to drastic changes therein, the present course aims to explore the theme of Earth processes and in particular to address the chemistry and physics based actors in System Earth.

Governments at all levels depend for their decision making processes on calculated models of Earth processes. In such models Earth processes are formulated and parameterized in terms of chemical and physical processes. In the course we will assess different kinds of approaches necessary to understand Earth processes.

In the course we will explore the principal components of System Earth:

  • Plate Tectonic Theory,

  • Rocks, Water and Weathering and

  • Time Scales of System Earth, and by going through a selection of calculated examples a deeper understanding of the processes involved is obtained.

We will focus first on the dynamics of planet Earth, the principal building blocks of the solid Earth, and introduce plate tectonic theory as the underlying paradigm; time scales and rates of processes will be introduced. In the second part of the course we will first study carbonate dissolution and the role of atmospheric CO2 on the pH of natural waters. In the next step we will introduce the anthropogenic factor: the chemical reactions that contribute to the formation of acid rain, and we proceed to quantify the effect of acid rain on natural waters. Thermodynamics gives us the tools to quantify chemical reactions. Weathering reactions of basement rock in the acidic environments will form clay minerals. The process of clay mineral formation in turn can be linked to the formation of mineral resources such as bauxite.

In the final leg of the course we introduce isotope geochemistry and its role in quantifying Earth processes: radioactive decay as a tool to measure time and isotope fractionation as a tool to document temperature fluctuations, and thus climate change in the past.

Course Objectives

After completion of the course students will be able to:

  • Describe the interactions between coupled reservoirs of Earth.

  • Calculate the acidity of natural and contaminated surface waters, and phase diagrams for weathering of rock forming minerals.

  • Determine the acidity of acid rain in an under-constrained system.

  • Explain the general principles of stable isotope thermometry.

  • Describe the general principles of isotopic dating and the accurate determination of time in geology.

After completion of this course students will know:

  • The basic principles of plate tectonic theory as the basis of understanding Earth processes.

  • The basic principles of the rock weathering cycle and its relation to resource formation.

  • The basic principles of climate change over geological time scales.

  • The basic principles of the Geological Time Scale.


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2020-2021 will be published on this page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

The course will center on plenary sessions for each of the main themes where the course theory is introduced, a rock practical led by Naturalis geologist, dr. Leo Kriegsman, and practical and theoretical assignments. Each of the three main parts will have a two week timeslot during which the targets for each theme will be introduced, and time will be divided over classroom teaching, and work on assignments. During Week 7 the focus will be on finalizing the assignments, presentations and assessment.

Assessment Method

Active in-class participation, 10%
The Plate tectonics experiment (includes a short written report), 15%,
Week 2 Geochemical cycles assignment, 15%,
Week 3 oral class room presentation: the Earth Sciences debate, 30% (written opening statement 10% + Debate 20%)
Week 7 final written exam, 30%

Reading list

Recommended, but not required (access to books in consultation with teaching staff):

  • An Introduction to the Earth-Life System, edited by Charles Cockell (writers: Charles Cockell, Richard Corfield, Neil Edwards, en Nigel Harris). Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 9870521729536 (paperback version), 2007.

  • Our Dynamic Planet, edited by Nick Rogers (writers: Steve Blake, Kevin Burton, Nigel Harris, Ian Parkinson, Nick Rogers, Mike Widdowson) Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9870521729543 (paperback version), 2007.

  • Principles and Applications of Geochemistry, G. Faure, 2nd edition, reprint. Prentice Hall.


Courses offered at Leiden University College (LUC) are usually only open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Leiden University students who participate in one of the university’s Honours tracks or programmes may register for one LUC course, if availability permits. Registration is coordinated by the Education Coordinator,


Prof. dr. J.R. Wijbrans,