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Earth Systems Science




Admission Requirements

Similarly tagged 100-level and 200-level courses. Students that do not meet this prerequisite should contact the instructor regarding the required competencies before course allocation.

A basic understanding of Earth processes, as is introduced in parts of GC2 ‘Sustainability Energy’ and GC4 ‘Sustainability Earth’ of the first year program is desirable.

The level of Physics and Chemistry as expected for successful completion of the course is 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), and 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 other courses in the Sustainability Master, such as e.g. GC4 ‘Sustainability – Earth’, 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 equations based chemical and physical processes.
In the course we will explore the principal components of System Earth: I – Plate Tectonic Theory, II – Rocks, Water and Weathering and III – 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:

  • Understand 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.

  • Understand how to calculate the acidity of acid rain in an under-constrained system.

  • Understand the general principles of stable isotope thermometry.

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

After completion of this course students will know:

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

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

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

  • The first principles of the Geological Time Scale.

Mode of Instruction

The course will center on plenary sessions for each of the main themes where the course theory is introduced, an excursion to Naturalis in Leiden, 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.


The students in this course will be assessed in various ways. Emphasis will be placed on the development of debating, critical reading, scientific writing and presentation skills for which different forms of learning and teaching will be employed depending on the learning aim (see table below).
The students will be required to report on a weekly basis in blog-style on their experience with the course. At the end of each 2 week block, students report back with progress reports. The curriculum content of week 7 is based on these reports.

Assessment: Active in-class participation
Percentage: 10%
Deadline: None; ongoing Weeks 1 – 7

Assessment: Weekly web-postings (Blog-reports) (100 words)
Percentage: 20%
Deadline: Weeks 1 – 7 Fridays at 24:00

Assessment: Oral report in the form of a class room presentation topics include the excursion to Naturalis and the Plate tectoncs experiment. (15 min. each)
Percentage: 30%
Deadline: Week 7 session 2

Assessment: Final report on class assignments. (3,000 words)
Percentage: 40%
Deadline: Week 8 Friday at 17:00


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.

Contact Information

Prof. dr. J.R. Wijbrans
E-Mail: j.r.wijbrans@vu.nl

Faculty/Department: Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, Leiden Institute of Chemistry
Office Address: Gorlaeus Building, Room number LCP 022, Einsteinweg 55, 2333 CC Leiden
Office Hours: By appointment

Weekly Overview

Week 1. Principal components of System Earth
Session 1. Plenary session; review Earth’s main reservoirs as chemically distinct entities, introducing Earth System Science as the science of interactions between the main reservoirs.
Session 2. Excursion to Naturalis

Week 2. Principal components of System Earth
Session 1. Plate Tectonics experiment.
Session 2. Reporting assignment Plate Tectonics experiment.

Week 3. Rocks, water and weathering
Session 1. Plenary session; Introduction to the general problem, The natural state. Theory of atmosphere chemistry focused on acid rain; acid rain pollution of lake systems.
Session 2. Class assignment: rock-water atmosphere interaction, theory of carbonate dissolution.

Week 4. Rocks, water and weathering
Session 1. Plenary session; phase diagrams, thermodynamics of chemical equilibrium
Session 2. Class assignment: rock-water atmosphere interaction, dissolution of silicates.

Week 5. Rates of Earth Processes
Session 1. stable isotope fractionation: calculating global temperatures from ocean and icecap delta 18O and delta 2H values.
Session 2. Class assignment: temperature curves for global temperature

Week 6. Rates of Earth Processes
Session 1. Plenary session; radioactive decay: measuring exact ages for Earth Systems, the Age of the Earth, early life.
Session 2. Class assignment: the age of the oldest life on Earth.

Week 7.
Session 1. Classroom presentations;
Session 2. final session class assignment

Week 8. Reading week: finalizing reports.

Preparation for first session