The Earth's Climate System

Louisa Bradtmiller,
Macalester College


This course will be taught once per year. It provides an introduction to the climate system through lectures, labs, discussions and activities. It uses lecture and inquiry based activities to help students gain understanding of the oceanic, atmospheric and anthropogenic components of a complex system.

Course Size:
fewer than 15

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites. It is a pre-requisite for Paleoclimate. Most students who take it are science majors, and a small majority are Environmental Studies majors or minors.

Course Content:

In this course we examine the basic physical and chemical processes that control the modern climate system, including the role of incoming solar radiation, the greenhouse effect, ocean and atmospheric circulation, and El Niño. We also look critically at the methods and archives used to reconstruct climate in the past, such as ice cores, marine and lake sediments, and cave deposits. We explore the possible effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions on modern and future climate by examining the models used in climate prediction, and discuss the challenges of modeling such a complex system.

Course Goals:

Analyze data and draw reasonable inferences from it
Read, comprehend and discuss scientific papers
Communicate clearly and effectively through written and oral presentations of ideas

Course Features:

The main feature of the course is a mixture of lectures and labs, as well as a two-week website assignment. This assignment asks students to crate a site that is both in-depth and also understandable to a non-scientific audience.

Course Philosophy:

I stuck with a typical lecture-lab format because it seems to be what many/most intro level students are comfortable with. I am also comfortable with it, which makes it easier for me, and presumably therefore slightly more enjoyable for the students. It works well with this topic, because there is a lot of information to convey in an intro course (lecture), yet students also get the opportunity to explore real datasets for themselves in lab.


Through graded homework, lab and website assignments, and through three exams.


Syllabus for in introductory course on climate science (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 125kB Mar26 10)

References and Notes:

The Earth System (Kump, Kasting and Crane)
4th IPCC report.