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Earth science a systems approach

Modern Earth science is the study of the Earth as a complex system of interacting reservoirs including the geosphere (core, mantle and crust), and the superficial reservoirs, including the hydrosphere, cryosphere and atmosphere. The resulting Earth system produces slowly changing stable habitats for life - the same Earth system produces sudden and catastrophic environmental changes. This online module explores several of the most important Earth system interactions through physical observations in the modern world, geological observations, measurements of changing chemical signatures, and quantitative and semi-quantitative models. Understanding past global changes helps to understand and predict the likely outcomes of present-day Earth.


S808 is an optional module in our:

This module can also count towards F53 and F60, which are no longer available to new students.

Postgraduate Loans

If you study this module as part of an eligible qualification, you may be eligible for a Postgraduate Loan. For more information, see Fees and funding.

Excluded combinations

Sometimes you will not be able to count a module towards a qualification if you have already taken another module with similar content. To check any excluded combinations relating to this module, visit our excluded combination finder or check with an adviser before registering.


Module code


  • Credits measure the student workload required for the successful completion of a module or qualification.
  • One credit represents about 10 hours of study over the duration of the course.
  • You are awarded credits after you have successfully completed a module.
  • For example, if you study a 60-credit module and successfully pass it, you will be awarded 60 credits.
Study level

Across the UK, there are two parallel frameworks for higher education qualifications, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (FHEQ) and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). These define a hierarchy of levels and describe the achievement expected at each level. The information provided shows how OU postgraduate modules correspond to these frameworks.

OU Postgraduate
Study method
Distance learning
Find out more in Why the OU?
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements

Find out more about entry requirements.

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What you will study

This module is divided into five main sections.

  • Introduction to Earth system science - an introduction to a systems approach to Earth science, the terminology and the descriptions of system states, components, feedbacks and differing time scales. Introduction to simple models such as daisyworld, testing Earth system models, and finally the Earth as a habitable world.
  • The causes and consequences of abrupt global warming -  examining some key episodes from the past when environmental change was sufficiently severe so as to have had profound and long-lasting consequences for life on Earth.  The work will include consideration of the information from these ancient records, and how they can inform our understanding of present-day environmental change.
  • Mountain building and climate change - focussing on uplift of the Himalayan mountain range and the Tibetan Plateau in order to (1) investigate the interaction between the orography and hydrological cycle (monsoon), weathering and modern carbon cycles, and (2) understand and contribute to the debate over causality and changes in proxies in the oceans over the last 50 million years.
  • The cryosphere and ocean circulation - the cryosphere has had and continues to play a central role in the global climate. This block will investigate the frozen hydrological cycle, and the changes currently taking place in the polar regions using real climate data and simple models to test ideas. The block finishes by looking at the potential for rapid change in these areas and how it could affect global climate.
  • Living with the modern Earth system - considers the implications of living with the Earth system. The block covers the scientific evidence for a relationship between human activities and climate change, the role of water in the modern Earth system, and some of the implications for humankind including increased drought, extreme precipitation events, flooding and hurricanes.

You will learn

You will continue to advance your knowledge and understanding of Earth system science, and learn about the scientific debates concerning the Earth system. You will also gain an understanding of analytical and modelling techniques, critically evaluate issues related to current research, and address scientific decision-making in complex and unpredictable situations.

You will learn to communicate information and conclusions effectively, both to specialist and non-specialist audiences, develop relevant new skills, including numeracy, and demonstrate self-direction and autonomy in planning work and solving problems. You will have to exercise initiative and personal responsibility, and develop and use independent learning skills required for continuing professional development. You will use information and communications technology (ICT) to locate information and communicate with a range of audiences.

Normally you must have completed either this module, SH804, Sd815, SEH806, S807, S809, S819, or S827 before progressing to the MSc project module (S810) or the MSc project module for MSc in Professional Science (SXB810).

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. Electronic communication will be used extensively. Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit all your assessment online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

The end-of-module assessment, which must be submitted online, will be composed of a summary, a critical discussion and an electronic presentation (a slideshow with an audio commentary).

Course work includes

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.

Future availability

Earth science: a systems approach (S808) starts once a year –  February 2019 is the last time we expect it to start.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the academic regulations which are available on our Essential Documents website.

    Entry requirements

    To register for any of our masters-level science courses you must normally hold a UK honours degree (or equivalent qualification) in science or a science-related subject. If you have other study or experience that you believe equips you to study at postgraduate level you can still apply, but must supply evidence of that study or experience. Your case will be referred to our MSc in Science Admissions Panel. For further advice, email the postgraduate science team.

    To successfully undertake this module you will need to have studied Earth science at degree level. If you do not have a degree in Earth science (or similar) then you are likely to need to undertake additional study at undergraduate Level 3 in geosciences before starting. Please contact the postgraduate science team for advice.

    We also recommend that you study Developing research skills in science (S825) before this module, particularly if you haven’t studied for a while or would like to improve your postgraduate study skills first.

    You will need good computing skills (e.g. able to search the Web, use email, use word processing packages, use spreadsheet packages to perform calculations and produce graphs and use presentation software to produces slides and audio). You should also be able to carry out mathematical manipulations (e.g. algebraic rearrangement of equations, use exponentials and logs).

    All teaching is in English and your proficiency in the English language should be adequate for the level of study you wish to take. We strongly recommend that you have achieved an International English Language Testing System (IELTS) score of at least 7. To assess your English language skills in relation to your proposed studies you can visit the IELTS website.

    If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please contact us.


    Start End England fee Register
    26 Jan 2019 Oct 2019 £2380.00

    Registration closes 10/01/19 (places subject to availability)

    February 2019 is the final start date for this course. For more information, see Future availability.

    Future availability

    Earth science: a systems approach (S808) starts once a year –  February 2019 is the last time we expect it to start.

    Additional costs

    Study costs

    There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

    Ways to pay

    We know there’s a lot to think about when choosing to study, not least how much it’s going to cost and how you can pay.

    That’s why we keep our fees as low as possible and offer a range of flexible payment and funding options. To find out more see Fees and funding.

    Study materials

    What's included

    Web-based text and software, via the S808 website, and access to the Earth science literature through The Open University Library.

    You will need

    A soundcard, headset and microphone are needed for this course, so that you can interact with your tutor group and also create audio to go with your slide presentation.

    Computing requirements

    A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module.  Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

    Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

    A desktop or laptop computer with either:

    • Windows 7 or higher
    • macOS 10.7 or higher

    The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

    To participate in our online-discussion area you will need both a microphone and speakers/headphones. 

    Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students. 

    Materials to buy

    Set books

    • Kump, L.R., Kasting, J.F. & Crane, G. The Earth System (3rd International edn) Pearson Education £57.99 - ISBN 9781292021638

    If you have a disability

    An Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) version of the Course Guide is available. All other material will be provided online. Some online or Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and mathematical or scientific materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. Written transcripts of any audio and video components are available. Alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future.

    You will spend a considerable amount of time using a computer, particular software and accessing the internet. This course requires students to access external literature resources (e.g. Earth science journals) electronically via the Open Library. Some resources/articles will be suggested by the S808 team but you will also be expected to spend time searching the library resources independently. Some of these resources may not be fully accessible. If you use specialist hardware or software you are strongly recommended to check that these will be compatible before you register for the course.

    If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.