Introduction to Earth History

Main course page will be available through D2L

Spring 2014

Instructor:       Prof. Craig Jones
Benson Earth Sciences, Rm 440-C     

Class Period: MWF 10:00-10:50 am, BESC 180

Review/Office Hours: TBA, Rm 440-E, or by appointment.

Web site: On D2L

Motivation: The Earth today is unique in the solar system: it harbors life and a mobile crust. Every landscape contains clues to the development of this unique system. In turn, operation of the tectonic, climate, and life systems has produced the landforms we enjoy today, mineral and energy resources, as well as geologic hazards like volcanoes, earthquakes, and landslides. Study of the history of the Earth provides us with a sense of place of different landscapes, knowledge of resource locations and potential geologic hazards, as well as the laboratory for testing our ideas about how Earth systems behave. We learn how the Earth responds in different situations (different atmosphere, different landscapes, different heat flow) by examining its past.


  1. learn to decipher the geologic history of a landscape
  2. learn how absolute and relative ages of rocks and geologic events can be determined
  3. learn how ancient climates can be determined
  4. learn how ancient landscapes and tectonic activity are determined
  5. consider how the composition of the atmosphere has changed with time and its implications
  6. consider how life has changed with time, plausible causes and consequences
  7. consider if plate tectonics has always operated and, if not, when did it start.
  8. consider the success of evolution, plate tectonics, and climate theories in understanding the geologic record.
  9. gain a basic understanding of the geologic history of North America and Colorado in particular.
  10. appreciate interaction of life, climate, and solid Earth

Class agenda: We will move backward through geologic time, asking questions of the past related to the goals above, and learning what techniques we need in order to answer our questions as we encounter topics of interest.

Textbook: There is no required textbook. However, a lot of background outside that provided in the website and in class is present in this book (which has been the required text in some other sections of this class). If you find textbooks helpful, I encourage you to get this book. Often readings from this text that are relevant to what we are studying will be posted online and listed at the start of class. Because we do things out of order, it is possible that the loose-leaf version might prove more desireable for some of you.

Supplemental Textbooks: The first supplemental text is intended for those interested in the history of life; it does not cover other aspects of this course but is a fine overview of the issues in life history (and is quite readable for a text). The second covers climate history in greater detail than our text, if you find that interesting. Particularly relevant readings will be listed online and at the start of class for those interested.

Additional Resources:

John Shelton, Geology Illustrated , W.H. Freeman & Co., 1966 (out of print). On reserve, Earth Sciences Library.
This book provides, through great photographs and associated drawings, a good grounding in the ways of geological interpretation and some of the geologic history of the western U.S.
Halka Chronic, Roadside Geology of Colorado, Mountain Press, Missoula, MT, 1980 (2nd edition, 2002). On reserve, Earth Sciences Library. Some copies can be bought from local bookstores in the Nature, Natural Science, or Colorado sections, ~$12.
A handy reference for driving in Colorado; early sections describe the history of Colorado, and the road guides provide some insight into the landscapes you encounter driving in the state.
Matthews, V., (Colorado Geological Survey), Tourist Guide to Colorado Geology [replaces Colorado Geologic Highway Map, MI 38,] can be purchased for $10 from the CGS and at some local outlets (e.g., Boulder Map Gallery). On reserve, Earth Sciences Library.
A good way to see what the rocks are as you drive around Colorado.
American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Geological Highway Map of the Southern Rocky Mountain Region, Map # 2 (revised), 1990. Available from the AAPG (, $12.
An alternative road map for the Rocky Mountain region. Includes localities of fossils and minerals and capsule descriptions of interesting geological localities in the Four Corners states.

Prerequisite: GEOL 1010 or equivalent. We do use material from GEOL1010 in this class; if you decide for some reason to take this class out of sequence, you are responsible for teaching yourself about these topics. Specific items include (but are not limited to) rocks and minerals, plate tectonics, volcanoes and earthquakes.

Text and lecture: You are responsible for material both in class and on the website.

Homework: There will be weekly assignments through the course. Homework will total 25 points (out of 100 for the class). No late homework will be accepted as we will discuss the results when the homework is due.

Clickers: Clickers are not required but we will use clickers in class. There are extra credit questions that pop up from time to time in the clicker questions (this is the only extra credit opportuinity in the class).

Exams: There will be three exams (each worth 25 points) and the final, worth 25 points, on the dates below. If you have a legitimate conflict with any of these dates (including religious holidays), you are responsible for contacting me in advance of the exam to arrange a make-up exam. Failure to take a scheduled exam without a signed doctor’s excuse will result in a 0 grade. The lowest of the three in-class exam scores will be dropped; the final will not be dropped. Although each exam focuses on material covered in the prior few weeks, material in this course builds upon itself. You are allowed one 8.5 x 11" page of handwritten notes at each exam; exams are usually on scantron forms with the possibility of short answers. A #2 pencil and eraser are needed for each exam.

Extra Credit: We will have on average one "clicker" question in class each lecture where a correct answer will count as extra credit. There may be some in-class activities which will also count as extra credit. There will be no other extra credit. Extra credit can improve your grade up to a full letter grade (e.g., a C can become a B).

Accommodations: Accommdations for disabilities, religious observations, and other issues will be made upon request within the usual campus guidelines.

Grading: Grades will be curved to reflect the difficulty of this particular class but only downward from 90/80/70/60 as lower thresholds for A-/B-/C-/D (that means if you are scoring 90% on homeworks and exams, you will do no worse than an A- and probably better). The lowest homework will be dropped from the class grade. Again, 25% of the grade is homework, 75% are exams .

Students eligible for and needing academic adjustments because of a disability are requested to contact the instructor before10 February 2014 (ideally before the first exam).

Other deadlines: As a reminder: