UCL Department of Geography
GEOGG120 Models in Environmental Science
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GEOGG120 Models in Environmental Science

(15 credits; Term 1)


Jon French, Julian Thompson, Richard Taylor, Anson Mackay, Helene Burningham, Chris Brierley, Alan Jenkins


  • to outline the nature and scope of modelling within the environmental sciences
  • to introduce a variety of different approaches to environmental system modelling with particular reference to climate change impacts
  • to present a range of modelling applications from hydrology, water chemistry, coastal science, and climate science
  • to encourage a critical approach to the evaluation and application of model-based environmental and climate change science


The Models in Environmental Science core course commences with an introduction to the various types of model and the role of modelling in the environmental sciences in general and climate change science in particular. Lectures cover the basic principles of empirical modelling (with application examples drawn mainly from the field of past climate change and palaeoenvironmental reconstruction) and mechanistic modelling (with examples drawn from ecology, hydrology and geomorphology). A range of case study examples are presented in more detail, including the use of graphical system modelling building software (STELLA) to simulate hydrological processes, application of analytical models (MSExcel) to simulate soil moisture and groundwater recharge, coastal wave climate (including use of the SWAN numerical wave model), water chemistry (including use of the CEH MAGIC model of catchment acidification), and climate modelling. The course also covers key issues related to the validation of model outputs against observational data. Students are also introduced to scientific computing, including the unix operating system and some basic aspects of programming, data manipulation and visualisation using Matlab.


Course paper on one of several prescribed topics (3500 words; worth 8% of total assessment).


The course is based upon lectures, with some supervised and self-paced practical work.

Learning Outcomes:

At the end of the course students should:

  • understand the role and nature of modelling in environmental and climate change science
  • understand the basic principles of model building using both empirical and mechanistic modelling approaches
  • have a clear understanding of the challenges and decisions associated with model implementation and validation of model output
  • have an awareness of the strengths and limitations of different types of model
  • have experience of unix-based computing and of Matlab and STELLA software