How to deal with global environmental change resulting from human activity is one of the most hotly debated topics of our time. This debate includes multiple scientific, societal, and economic issues. Our planet Earth has always been dynamic from a climatic and environmental viewpoint.

To fully understand the global environmental change debate, it is crucial to understand the fundamental set of mechanisms that drive planet Earth’s natural dynamics. From here, it is possible to assess which processes are currently altered through human activity, and how these alterations affect the dynamic trajectory of our planet.In this track you will learn to identify the driving geological and anthropogenic forces affecting the global climate systems, as well as the availability of natural resources. 

The Earth and Environment track follows a stepwise approach to understanding the complexities of the Earth system. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the environmental and earth sciences, the phenomena studied often connect to topics discussed in courses across the different departments of University College Utrecht.

The first and second level courses focus on learning theoretical concepts and skills important in the environmental sciences (i.e. environmental modelling) and earth sciences (i.e. four-dimensional thinking to reconstruct earth system dynamics from geological maps). In the upper level course you will apply this knowledge by developing predictive models for ecosystem dynamics, by developing strategies to combat current societal problems arising from inappropriate resource management, and by using classical economic geology to obtain insight in technological solutions assisting sustainable resource management.

For the more mathematically inclined students, the track also offers a physics-based course that focuses specifically on the climate system. In addition to the regular courses offered during the spring and fall semesters, multiple opportunities for learning practical skills are offered within the track.

Specifically, every year 1-3 lab courses are offered within the Track as well. The specific topics of the lab courses change between years, depending on on-going research in the Faculty of Geosciences at Utrecht University. Past topics include Paleoecology, Carbon storage of deciduous forests, Geological modelling, Global land use for Sustainability Science and Eutrophication of Dutch grasslands. Practical and theoretical skills can be developed further during the thesis project. Field research opportunities are regularly available, either at research groups within the Faculty of Geosciences (to be explored by students at their own initiative), or within University College Utrecht’s Caribbean field research programme, for example.

Examples of recent thesis topics (and institutes where the research was conducted):

  • Behavioural changes in European bison due to exposure to Konik horses (Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University)
  • Paleomagnetic intensity of Hawaiian lava flows (Paleomagnetism group, Department of Earth Sciences, Utrecht University)
  • Mitigation of Greenland Ice sheet melt (Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, Utrecht University).
  • Optimizing the output of solar panels placed on residential roofs in Utrecht (Physical Geography group, Department of Earth Sciences, Utrecht University)
  • Origins of debris found on the pocket beaches of Aruba (University of Aruba/University College Utrecht field research programme). 

Due to its close connection with the interdisciplinary field of Sustainability Science, the track can be combined with many other relevant fields, depending on the student’s specific sustainability challenges of interest.

Combining this track with the Chemistry track provides a basis for further studies in (bio)geochemistry, whereas a combination with the Physics track (together with the course Atmosphere and Climate) provides a basis for further studies in environmental physics, particularly climate physics.

Combining the track with the Biology track (particularly the Ecology and Evolution-oriented courses) provides a basis for further studies in Environmental Biology.

For students interested in assembling an interdepartmental major, the track combines well with the Human Geography track, providing a basis for further studies in environmental planning, and with the Law & Politics tracks as a basis for further studies in environmental governance. 

The main track within Earth and Environment consists of three courses: Introduction to Earth & Environment (UCSCIEAR11), Global Processes and Sustainability (UCSCIEAR21) and Resources and their Sustainable management (UCSCIEAR31). Many topics discussed within these courses touch upon sustainability issues, and the track as a whole is therefore closely related to Sustainability Science, which integrates the beta and gamma sciences.

Students interested in learning more about sustainability can combine the track with the interdepartmental level-2 course Sustainability (which can also be combined with the preparatory course Energy systems and Sustainability). Students who have followed this course can also enroll within the Earth & Environment track (at level 2).

For the more beta-oriented students, the track also offers the level-2 course Atmosphere and Climate (UCSCIEAR22), which has the entry requirement of successful completion of a level-1 math or physics course involving calculus. 

Off-campus courses provide additional opportunities to learn about more specialised topics. Examples of more beta-oriented courses are Geochemical cycles (Geo2-1207), Global Climate Change (Geo2-2143) and Land degradation (Geo3-4304). More gamma-oriented students may be interested in courses such as Environmental Impact Assessment (Geo2-2123). Many new opportunities will arise in the coming years, as Utrecht University is currently developing a new undergraduate programme in Global Sustainability Science. 

The track aims to prepare students for a Master's programme in the Environmental, Earth and Climate sciences, as well as the growing field of Sustainability Science. University College Utrecht alumni who did their thesis in Earth and Environment have moved on the following Master's programmes:

  • Master in Sustainable Development (Utrecht University)
  • Master in Earth, Life and Climate (Utrecht University)
  • Industrial Ecology (TU Delft)
  • Sustainable Energy Technology (TU Delft)
  • Environment & Resource Management (Free University Amsterdam)
  • Marine Resources and Ecology (Wageningen University)

SCIEAR11 An Introduction to Earth and Environment (Fall and Spring)
This course provides a general introduction in the earth and environmental sciences.

SCIEAR21 Global processes and sustainability (Fall)
This course discusses the global processes that drive long-term variability and abrupt transitions within the earth system.

SCIEAR22 Atmosphere and Climate (Spring)
This course provides and overview of the physics needed to describe the climate system.

SCIEAR31 Resources and their Sustainable management (Spring)
This course discusses how to infer, describe and manage natural resource availability, using a variety of case studies.

Level Code Course Recommended Courses Off-campus
1 SCIEAR11 Introduction to Earth and Environment SCIPHY01: Energy Systems and Sustainability  
2 SCIEAR21 Global Processes and Sustainability INTSUS21: Sustainability  
SCIEAR22 Atmosphere and Climate
3 SCIEAR31 Resources and their Sustainable Management    


As noted above, the lab courses organised within the track vary from year to year, the content of the lab courses depending on on-going research activities within the Faculty of Geosciences. Inquiries regarding upcoming lab courses can be addressed to either the lab course coordinator or the fellow of the Earth and Environment track.  

Dr Hugo de Boer is the Earth and Environment fellow at University College Utrecht. Office: Vening Meineszgebouw A, Room 8.04, Princetonlaan 8a, 3584 CB Utrecht.