Modeling Earth and Environmental Systems

Stephen Hurst,
University of Illinois, Department of Geology


In this course, students will build and use models of climatic, hydrologic, geochemical, and human systems, explore the basic concepts of systems modeling, use models to test hypotheses, and find out about the assumptions and approximations that must be made in modeling.

Course URL:
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lab only

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

Upper level undergraduate and first year graduate course. No specific pre-requisites and not a prerequisite for other course. Optionally used as a capstone course for Environmental majors.

Course Content:

Modeling is learned by doing. So, this is a course where you will spend most of your time building and using models. There will be a variety of models that you will build covering in general the cycles of mass and energy in the earth system at a variety of time scales. This includes the carbon cycle in the atmosphere and oceans, the radiative balance of the earth and latent heat movement in the atmosphere. We will also study and modify existing economic and social models - specifically the World 3 model originally developed for the book "Beyond the Limits" in 1972.

Course Goals:

There are several course goals:
  • to understand how models are constructed and used, what assumptions must be made, which results are robust and which are deserving of skepticism,
  • to grasp the fundamental systems concepts that underlie all models: fluxes and reservoirs, positive and negative feedbacks, open and closed systems,
  • to gain basic modeling skills that can be applied in your own research,
  • to learn about the basic principles that govern the systems we model here: the climate, the hydrologic cycle, pollution, biogeochemical cycles, and the sustainability of human activity on the Earth,
  • to learn how to calibrate and validate models and check the sensitivity of parameters.

Course Features:

10 weeks of weekly projects/model building that get progressively more complex, then 5 weeks of study of the World 3 model and its implications for sustainable future.

Course Philosophy:

To enable students to learn to create their own models for topics both simple and complex, such that they might hear about in a colloquium talk, or in their own research.


Weekly quizzes, project write ups, Final Exam with progressively difficult environmental model project to be completed in the 3 hours.


Modeling the Earth Syllabus (Microsoft Word 36kB Mar29 10)

References and Notes:

  • Modeling the Environment , Andrew Ford.
  • Limits to Growth, the 30 year update and the previous two books in the series, Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits, all by Meadows, Meadows and Rander.