The Earth System during Interglacials

Max Berkelhammer
University of Illinois at Chicago
Author Profile


Students use a simplified climate model to understand how Earth's climate responds to greenhouse gas and orbital forcing with an emphasis on the last interglacial period. Students use the changes in climate to make inferences to how the Earth system (including biosphere) responds to warming.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This is the final project for a 200 level course called Earth Systems. Students in the class are Earth Science majors with 100 level prerequisites. The class follows Kump's Earth System text book and students will have done a number of basic spreadsheet calculations leading up to this project.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

At this point students will need to have a working knowledge of the Earth's climate and the major forcing agents. This includes an understanding of orbital forcing of the climate system and the greenhouse effect. While students do not need to have extensive computing skills, it is good for students to be able to work with larger datasets.

How the activity is situated in the course

This project is started about a month prior to the end of the semester. Three to four lab periods are dedicated to this project such that students can have one lab period to learn the software, a second lab period to design an experiment and two additional lab periods to run the simulations and interpret the results. The students work in groups and do an oral presentation of their results as a capstone activity for the class. The exercise carries 15% weight to their final grade.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students are asked to understand the relative importance of orbital forcing and greenhouse gas concentrations in driving climate change. They learn to use a simplified climate model and design experiments where either orbital forcing, greenhouse gases or both are modified. The differences between these simulations allows students to isolate how these different forcing mechanisms influence the earth system. The work broadly supports students understanding of the difference between natural and anthropogenic forcing mechanisms of the climate system.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students need to think about how and why different forcing mechanisms influence the climate system. Students need to think about how models can be used to test hypotheses. Students need to understand that changes in the climate system are driven by feedback loops and whether a model accurately captures that feedback loop will often determine its capacity to generate an accurate depiction of the climate system.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students learn to plot and do basic algebra on matrices (global grid). Students generate figures and integrate them into an oral presentation. Students design experiments using a model.

Description of the activity/assignment

The Eemian age was the last time the Earth is believed to have been warmer than today. However, this warm period occurred with Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere that were similar to those during the pre-industrial era. Students will use a simplified climate model and with Eemian orbital conditions to try and reproduce this previous warm period. Students will then use modern orbital forcing but elevated greenhouse gas concentrations to look at the modern and future climates. Students will try and understand the differences between these two contrasting warm climates.

Eemian and modern warm climates (Acrobat (PDF) 241kB Nov10 16)

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students do a series of small lab experiments to show proficiency with the modeling software. Students do a second set of questions to design their own experiment, which is used to assess their understanding of the Earth System. Students present a referenced oral presentation that includes figures they generated from their climate model experiments.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials