UCL Earth Sciences


GEOL0023 Crustal Dynamics, Mountain Building & Basin Evolution

The Betics field course is designed as a problem-based approach and offers experience-based learning with a holistic approach on different scales to geological problem solving. Third and Fourth Year students are provided with an up-to-date perspective on micro- to macro-scale geological features and processes in the geological framework of crustal evolution and dynamics.

Coordinator: Prof Juergen Thurow

Module details
TitleCrustal Dynamics, Mountain Building and Basin Evolution
UG CodeGEOL0023
CoordinatorProf. Juergen Thurow
Other Contributors 
Term2 (fieldtrip only; no taught element)
Credit15 credits
Oral Exam30% (viva voice exam, c. 25 minutes long).
Coursework50% field-book (four problem-based assessed exercises); 20% report.
Pre-RequisitesGEOL0004 Dynamic EarthGEOL0006 Surface ProcessesGEOL0010 Sedimentology and Stratigraphy
Maths & Stats Content and Requirement 
Total Number of Hours of Student Work188 hours
Hours of Lectures/Seminars10 hours
Hours of Practicals/Problem Classes10 hours
Hours of TutorialsAs needed
Days of Fieldwork12 days

The field course is designed as a problem-based approach and offers experience-based learning. It provides Third and Fourth Year students with an up-to-date perspective on micro- to macro-scale geological features and processes in the geological framework of crustal evolution and dynamics. The course covers:

Orogenic processes; continent-continent collision; late orogenic extension on- and offshore; foreland basin development; basin inversion processes; magmatic, metamorphic and sedimentary signatures of continental compression and extension including volcanic activity; rift basins; passive continental margins (in the Mesozoic). All major rock types are addressed, including mantle material (peridotites), metamorphic rocks under increasing p-t conditions (using these metamorphic rocks to unravel the formation of the Betics orogeny), subduction- and extension-related volcanic rocks (Cabo de Gata), Messinian salinity crisis and its products, reef formation and associated biofacies in the Messinian, deepwater gravity deposits (turbidites, debris flows), alluvial sedimentary rocks, karst, Cretaceous anoxic events, Tertiary climate change and Milankovitch cyclicity. Using various small scale structural elements to reconstruct basin evolution is a particular emphasis of this field trip.

Why the Betics? There is allegedly no better area in Europe to run a comprehensive final year field trip in a mountain belt at the time of the year we have to go. A large number of UK Earth Science Departments use various areas of the Betics as training grounds although our field course is unique as it covers all aspects of the geological evolution of the Betics. The area benefits from excellent outcrops, easy access from roads, good weather, no snow in higher areas, well known geology, still relatively cheap.


Minimum of 4 assessed exercises (small projects). They usually take >4 hours. Results are presented in the notebook or on separate graph paper. For logistical reasons I do not always use the same exercises. Depending on the problem I give either an extended introduction or I just line out the intended outcome.

1.) At least two, but usually three exercises are a combination of structural analysis, sedimentary processes and products, clast analysis (metamorphic rocks) and where possible dating (micro/macro) either in the context of Neogene extension/basin formation or thrusting and extension in the Mesozoic part of the External Betics. I use large-scale outcrops or in one example a x-km walk through a stack of thrust sheets (template provided). In total I have a portfolio of 6 areas. Judging by 15 years of experience all exercises are challenging to say the least.

2.) Analysis of the Carboneras Fault Zone (allegedly one of the best 3-D exposures of a fault zone) including the various slices of all the structural units of the Internal Betics (metamorphic, sedimentary and volcanic rocks) within 1 km of outcrop. Usually I have one group per slice. Each group reports their findings to all participants with the aim to unravel movements along the fault and significance for the evolution of the Betics together (always in the programme and assessed).

3.) Small-scale logging, sedimentary structures, dating and sedimentary clast analysis of a calcareous sub-CCD turbidite sequence (channel-fill with truncations but also preservation of autochthonous sediment) outcropping as a strongly vergent syncline. Groups of students log various parts of the normal and overturned limb and are asked to put the parts into a stratigraphic context (difficult because most of the thicker packages show inverse grading). One group figures out the overall tectonic structure by covering a larger area (always in the programme and assessed).

3) Detailed analysis of the volcanic history (outcrop to crystal) of an area near Cabo de Gata (including dacitic lava domes, basaltic lava flows, ignimbrites (and emplacement) and weathering (rock-water interactino - bentonite formation) of these originally submarine deposits (not separately assessed).

The majority of the other outcrops visited are mini-projects. I usually give a brief introduction and then the students develop the story of the outcrop with the appropriate approach depending on lithology and structure.

Depending on available time and students’ willingness to pay the entrance fee we may visit two caves.
1.) Gypsum cave with bedded gypsum and karst features in the Messinian evaporites
2.) Limestone cave with extensive karst features, a range of speleothems and dated cave paintings (tell us something about hydrology/past climates in the area)
Both caves are next to outcrops we visit and allow students to understand e.g. the 3-D structure of the Messinian evaporite deposits.

2. Notebooks

Notebooks are collected and marked after some days. Students are told if they are on the right track or have to improve (and how). Notebooks/assessed exercises are collected again at the end of the trip and double marked.

3. Summary report

Students have to produce a summary report "The geological evolution of the Betics from the Palaeozoic to the Neogene" entirely based on the field guide and their notes/observation. Key outcrops have to be referenced (2000 words + figs. & maps).

4. Exam

During the GEOL0020/GEOL0023 exam (viva voce) students will be asked questions referring to the Betics or geological processes with reference to visited outcrops/exercises.


To teach students a holistic approach on different scales to geological problem solving applying most of the skills they have learned during their degree programme. This module is entirely taught in the field (Betic Cordillera, S. Spain).


At the end of the field course the students should understand and be able to apply how a holistic small-scale approach can unravel the geological history of large-scale geological processes and features.