nl en

Earth Sciences: Dynamics, Cycles and Timescales


Admissions requirements

Students admitted to the Honours Programme in the Faculty of Science, Leiden University.
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. While other courses in the Faculty of Science Honours Programme consider humans in regards to Earth processes, and vulnerable to drastic changes therein, the present course aims to explore the theme of Earth processes from the standpoint of their chemical and physics based controls. 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 develop different kinds of models necessary to understand Earth 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.

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. Rock practical at 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

  • Finalizing reports.

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,

  • Calculate the acidity of acid rain in an under-constrained system,

  • Describe general principles of stable isotope thermometry,

  • Apply general principles of isotopic dating to accurately determine geologic time.

After completion of this course students will know:

  • The first principles of plate tectonic theory as a basis to characterize 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.


Week 1.
Tuesday 7 en Wednesday 8 February 17.00 - 19.00h
Gorlaeus building C06
Week 2.
Tuesday 14 en Wednesday 15 February 17.00 - 19.00h
Sylvius building: 1.5.05
Week 3.
Tuesday 28 February en Wednesday 1 March 17.00 - 19.00h
Gorlaeus building C06
Week 4.
Tuesday 7 en Wednesday 8 March 17.00 - 19.00h
Gorlaeus building C06
Week 5.
Tuesday 14 March 17.00 - 19.00h
Gorlaeus building C06
Wednesday 15 March 17.00 - 19.00h
Gorlaeus building C07
Week 6.
Tuesday 21 en Wednesday 22 March 17.00 - 19.00h
Gorlaeus building C06
Week 7.
Tuesday 28 en Wednesday 29 March 17.00 - 19.00h
Gorlaeus building C06

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.


  • Active in-class participation, 10%, ongoing weeks 1 – 7;

  • The plate tectonics experiment (Includes a short written report), 30%, weeks 2 – 3;

  • Oral class room presentation: topics include e.g. Chemical cycles and (15 min. each), 20%, week 7, session 2;

  • Final written exam, 40%, week 8.


There will be a Blackboard site available for this course. Students will be enrolled at least one week before the start of classes.

Reading list

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.


This course is open to Faculty of Science Honours Programme students. Registration is in uSis.Classnumber (activiteitscode) 17196.
Registration is coordinated by the Honours College Coordinator. (


Faculty/Department: Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, Institute of Biology
Office Address: Sylvius Building, Sylviusweg 71, 2333 BE Leiden
Office Hours: By appointment