Course Syllabus

Climate, Glaciers, and Human Impact

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Semester & Location:

Fall 2023 - DIS Copenhagen

Type & Credits:

Core Course - 3 credits

Core Course Study Tours:

Odsherred, Denmark and Iceland

Major Disciplines:

Biology, Environmental Science, and Geology


One course in environmental or earth science at university level. One year of physics or chemistry at university level is recommended.

Faculty Members:

Inger Seierstad

Eliza Cook

Rasmus Ekman


Time & Place:

Mondays and Thursdays 11:40-13:00, F24-403

Description of Course

In this course we will study the main mechanisms governing climate change in the past, the present, and the future. The motivation is that recent trends of climate and other environmental changes, whether due to human activity or natural variability, have focused societal attention on their potential negative impacts on human and environmental health. An understanding of past climate variability and its underlying causes and mechanisms is the basis for separating natural and anthropogenic climate change and for making useful projections of future climate and assessing its impacts.

To get to this understanding, the course takes a journey from deep time through to the present describing periods when the climate was strikingly different than it is today and revealing the mechanisms and feedbacks that govern the climate system. 

Students will travel to Iceland, where they will explore the glaciers, the volcanoes and the landscape in Southern Iceland, hike on an outlet glacier and experience first-hand the amazing interaction between ice and geothermal activity. They will experience the local culture and language, delve into the history of Iceland and investigate the links between changes in climate and in society in the past. Furthermore, they will learn how geothermal energy can be harnessed in a renewable way, and maybe take a relaxing swim in the outdoor thermal pools.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this course students should be able to:

  • Use evidence of past climate change in order to contextualize current and projected climate change
  • Identify and outline important climate feedbacks
  • Apply the notion of time scales when discussing the effects of different climate phenomena
  • Identify and explain a selection of climate change causes
  • Point out similarities and differences between "natural" and "anthropogenic" climate change
  • Have a general understanding of the methods applied in paleoclimatology, including different indirect measurements (proxies) and dating methods
  • Discuss climate conditions as a key factor in the evolution of modern civilization
  • Understand the basis for climate projections and the source of some of the main uncertainties
  • Explain the main differences between climate data obtained from natural archives and from historical sources
  • Identify the key differences between geothermal energy production and energy production using fossil fuels


Students enrolling in this class must bring the following with them to be properly equipped for the activities during the course integrated study tours

  • Water proof outer layer (rain jacket and rain pants)
  • Water proof footwear suitable for light hiking (e.g. hiking boots)
  • Warm clothes (layers) suitable for outdoor activities in all kinds of weather in Denmark and Iceland


Inger Kathrine Seierstad, MSc in Geology-Geophysics (University of Copenhagen). Educated within glaciology at Centre for Ice and Climate, Niels Bohr Institute, which is a world-leading research group in ice core science. Inger has done research on ice cores, past climate change, volcanic deposits in ice, stable isotopes and stratigraphic dating of ice cores. Participated in ice-core drillings in Greenland and Antarctica multiple times. With DIS since 2018.

Eliza Cook, PhD in Physical Geography at Swansea University (2016) and MSc in Quaternary Science at University College London (2003). Currently an assistant professor at Copenhagen University, with a research focus on reconstructing volcanism over the last 100,000 years, using the Greenland ice cores. Experience as a Field Scientist on eight ice core drilling expeditions in the Arctic, and as a field operations manager, supporting research logistics for the research missions in Greenland.  

Rasmus Ekman, MSc in Geography and Geoinformatics (University of Copenhagen). GIS analyst and drone pilot in the Department of Sustainable Development, City of Copenhagen. His primary work is in climate adaptation projects, ensuring public participation and creation of high detailed drone generated geodata. Former member of  the student association for Physical Geography with University of Copenhagen. Former position with the Copenhagen Municipality in the Climate Adaptation Unit under the Technical and Environmental Administration Works with GIS at the climate adaptation unit in the municipality of Copenhagen and at Energy and Water – Greater Copenhagen Science Centre. With DIS since 2016.


All textbooks and readings will be provided by DIS. Textbooks are to be retrieved from book pick-up during the arrivals workshop. The readings for each class are listed in the course calendar and come from the required texts. The abbreviations used in the course calendar events are given in parentheses below.

Main textbooks:
William F. Ruddiman: Earth’s Climate Past and Future, 3rd edition, 2013 (EC)
Chris Turney: Ice, Mud and Blood: Lessons from Climates Past, 2008 (IMB)

Other required texts:
IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of
Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Chris Turney: The forged cloth of Turin. In: Bones, Rocks and Stars, 2006 (BRS)

Björnsson and Pálsson: Icelandic Glaciers, Jökull No. 58, 2008 (Björnsson and Pálsson)

Ogilvie et al.: North Atlantic Climate c. AD 1000: Millennial reflections on the Viking discoveries of Iceland, Greenland and North America, Weather vol. 55, 2000, p34-45 (Ogilvie et al.)

Ogilvie and Pálsson: Mood, Magic and Metaphor: Allusions to Weather and Climate in the Sagas of Icelanders, in Weather, Climate, Culture 2003, p251 (Ogilvie and Pálsson)

Denton et al.: The Last Glacial Termination, Science vol. 328, 2010 (Denton)

IPCC technical paper II - An introduction to climate models used in the IPCC second assessment report, 1997 (IPCC Tech)

Readings and notes:
Students are expected to read the assigned readings prior to each class, spending at least 2 hours reading and preparing per meeting. In the classroom, we will not cover all the material in the assigned text, but will focus on key concepts, the understanding of the underlying processes and the similarities and differences between climate changes on different time scales. In order to get the most out of the time in class, we ask you to post the following on the course discussion forum on the DIS Canvas course page no later than 8 pm the day before each class:

  • What would you define as the key 1-3 messages of today’s text?
  • Mention any specific sections or concepts in today’s text that you find particularly difficult.
  • Pose questions that you would like to include as part of the class discussion.

Students are encouraged to write notes to summarize the assigned readings. Self-made notes (one standard paper page per textbook chapter) are the only allowed aids during the tests.

Course Structure:
The plan of topics and assignments is found below, and readings etc. are updated on the Canvas course pages. Assigned readings and other details on the meetings are subject to change but will be updated online with as much notice as possible.

Field studies/study tours/core course week

Core Course Week and Study Tours
Core Course week and study tours are an integrated part of the core course as we take the classroom on the road and see how theory presented in the classroom is translated to practice in the field. You will travel with your classmates and DIS faculty/staff on two study tours; a short study tour to Odsherred during Core Course Week and a long study tour to Iceland later in the semester.

Expectations for study tours

  • Participate in all activities
  • Engage in discussions, ask questions, and contribute to achieving the learning objectives
  • Respect the destination, the speakers, DIS staff, and your fellow classmates
  • Represent yourself, your home university, and DIS in a positive light

While on a program study tour, DIS will provide hostel/hotel accommodation, transportation to/from the destination(s), approx. 2 meals per day and entrances, guides, and visits relevant to your area of study or the destination. You will receive a more detailed itinerary prior to departure.

Travel policies
You are required to travel with your group to the destination. If you have to deviate from the group travel plans, you need approval from the program director and the study tours office.

Core course week
Short study tour to Odsherred: This three-day short tour will take you to Odsherred (Western Zealand) to see how glaciers during the last ice age helped shape the current landscape in northwest Zealand. You will explore the Odsherred Geopark, drill sediment cores to investigate past climate in the area, learn about local flora and fauna, and be immersed culturally through various cultural experiences and cuisine.

Student presentations at DIS: Climate proxies

Visit to the Ice Core Laboratory at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen: Here we will introduce and explore the activities and facilities associated with ice core drilling in Greenland and the climate information that can be extracted from the Greenland ice cores

Long study tour to Iceland
During this week-long stay in Reykjavik and Southern Iceland, students will explore a diversity of amazing land- and icescapes. The activities include a glacier walk and a visit to an ice tunnel that has been dug into the Langjökull Glacier. We will visit research institutions in Reykjavik where local experts will tell us about their research on the past, present and future state of the Icelandic glaciers and ice caps. We will also visit a geothermal power plant, visit areas of high geothermal activity and relax in the geothermally heated outdoor swimming pools. We will travel along the south coast of Iceland to enjoy the landscapes shaped by glaciers and volcanoes. Furthermore, we will investigate the links between climate, volcanoes and the settlement and history of Iceland.


To be eligible for a passing grade in this class you must complete all of the assigned work. The overall grade will come from the following: 

45%: 3 written tests during the semester
(2-3 pages) with multiple choice questions and short text questions based on assigned readings and class discussions. Each of the tests will be announced at least a week in advance and completed during 20-30 minutes of class time.

0%: Odsherred Field Journal
A small collection of questions related to the Odsherred tour that must be passed to be eligible for a passing grade in the class.

15%: Iceland Field Journal
A collection of questions and assignments related to the Iceland tour and case study.

30%: Final exam
More information on the format of the final exam will follow later in the semester.

10%: Participation and Canvas Reading Feedback
We expect and encourage active participation in class discussions and require written feedback via DIS Canvas of each lesson’s assigned reading. Here you will summarize the main points of the readings and pose questions that can be covered as part of the class discussion (see above).

Academic Regulations

Use of laptops or phones in class: Focused and constructive contribution in class discussions is encouraged and expected. Laptops, phones and other portable electronic devices can be used for taking notes if in silent mode, but please refrain from writing or checking e-mail and text messages, browsing, or using social networks during class hours. During student presentations and group work, we kindly ask you to turn off or put away electronic devices.

Please make sure to read the Academic Regulations on the DIS website. There you will find regulations on: 

DIS - Study Abroad in Scandinavia -

Course Summary:

Date Details Due