Earth Systems and Climate Change

Elizabeth Johnson
, James Madison University


GGEOL 115 explores cycles, trends, and abrupt events in the Earth system. Analyses of the geologic record and global climate models provide perspective for understanding paleoclimate and future climate changes, including global warming. Current hypotheses for causes of climate change are evaluated including plate tectonics, orbital cyclicity, variations in the Sun's strength, and human activities. The two reoccurring questions of the course are "What are Earth's climate stories? and How do we know?"

Course Type: Intro Level Global Change
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no prerequisites which satisfies a general education requirement. Although the course is meant for freshmen and sophomores, typically 60% of students are juniors or seniors who waited until the last minute to satisfy their science requirements. Students who decide to major in geology take a supplemental lab course in physical geology.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? yes
GEOL110: Physical Geology is for both majors and non-majors
GGEOL115: Earth Systems and Climate Change is for non-majors
GGEOL102: Environment: Earth is for non-majors
If students take a "non-majors" course, and then decide to become a major, do they have to go back and take an additional introductory course? yes

Course Content:

The course is split into three parts. The first section of the course covers today's climate through the framework of Earth Systems, including energy transfer, circulation of the atmosphere and oceans, and feedback with ice sheets. The second third of the course covers climate models and paleoclimate archives of the Cretaceous, Milankovitch cycles, and the Last Glacial Maximum. The last section of the course talks about recent and future climate change. A course project allows students to read up on recent climate change research of their choice.

Course Goals:

JMU has standard goals for General Education Science Courses:
* Describe the methods of inquiry that lead to mathematical truth and scientific knowledge and be able to distinguish science from pseudoscience.
* Use theories and models as unifying principles that help us understand natural phenomena and make predictions.
* Recognize the interdependence of applied research, basic research, and technology, and how they affect society.
* Illustrate the interdependence between developments in science and social and ethical issues.
* Use graphical, symbolic, and numerical methods to analyze, organize, and interpret natural phenomena.
* Discriminate between association and causation, and identify the types of evidence used to establish causation.
* Formulate hypotheses, identify relevant variables, and design experiments to test hypotheses.
* Evaluate the credibility, use, and misuse of scientific and mathematical information in scientific developments and public-policy issues.

Course Features:

I emphasize the scientific method and evaluating science in the news. We apply the scientific method to recent scientific discussions and past climate events throughout the course, and the students write a news article on the scientific methods and results they read about in a scientific journal article chosen from the bibliography of the 2007 IPCC report. Two example activities used in this course are Hot Topics in Global Warming and A LONG LONG time ago: geologic timescales.

Course Philosophy:

We have large courses with no teaching assistant help, but I added a project to the course so that the students get a chance to explore their own interests independently even though it is a large class. We also have think-share-pair discussions and some group activities to break up the lecture.


225 Test 1
225 Test 2
225 Test 3 (final; not cumulative)*
160 Warm-Up Assignments and In-Class Activities
165 Project: News Article
1000 Total Points
10-30 Points for Extra Credit Satire Project


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 191kB May7 08)

References and Notes:

Earth's Climate Past and Future, 2nd edition by William Ruddiman
It is the standard text for this course in our department; it contains chapters on recent and future climate change and computer models of climate

Students also do extra readings on the internet or from other sources (such as Lovelock) that are updated every semester.