Earth's Climate: Past, Present and Future

Kira Lawrence
, Lafayette College


Earth's climate has changed dramatically over its history moving between completely ice-free intervals to periods of global glaciation. This course will examine how and why these changes occurred by identifying the major components of the Earth's climate system and exploring the factors and processes that influence the system over a variety of timescales. Using the major lessons learned from Earth's history, we will consider the climatological impact of human activity and examine current ideas about Earth's climatic future.

Course Type: Intro Level:Earth Science Intro Level
Course Size:

Course Format:
Students enroll in one course that includes both lecture and lab. The lecture and the lab are both taught by the professor.

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an introductory course with no pre-requisites. This source does serve as a pre-requisite for some upper level geology courses. Most of the students enrolled in this course are fulfilling a lab science distributive requirement. However, some are planning to major in geology or minor in environmental science.

In your department, do majors and non-majors take separate introductory courses? no

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? no

Course Content:

This course focuses on the history of climatic change on Earth. The first several weeks are devoted to teaching students about how the Earth System works, from atmospheric and ocean circulation to plate tectonics, rock and mineral ID and geologic time. The bulk of the course is devoted to a journey though climatic change in Earth history on all timescales. This final segment of the course culminates in a section on anthropogenic climate change.

Course Goals:

I would like my student to comprehend and be able to apply the scientific method. I am interested in my students gaining an appreciation for the long and complex history of climate on Earth. I would like my students to understand some fundamental concepts about how Earth's climate system works. I hope that my students can then apply the lessons they have learned from Earth history and their knowledge of how the modern climate system works to understand anthropogenic climate change.

Course Features:

Labs are designed to be interactive and contain a wide variety of activities from field work to data analysis to critiquing of films with climate relevant content. Lectures contain think-pair-share activities and are designed to help students understand and explore scientific hypotheses.

Course Philosophy:

My course has 51 students. Given this class size the think-pair-share activities I use in lecture help to keep lecture lively and engaging. Labs are hands-on and inquiry based. They allow students to engage with real climate data, but also apply what they are learning to mainstream culture (we critique "The Day After Tomorrow" and "An Inconvenient Truth"), which I think helps them understand why what they are learning is relevant.


Student's achievement of these learning goals is illustrated by their performance in lab exercises, writing assignments and examinations that are designed to test their understanding and ability to apply the concepts presented in the course.


Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 67kB May7 08)

References and Notes:

Earth's Climate: Past and Future by William Ruddiman
This is one of the only introductory climate texts around. Of those that exist it provides the most accessible presentation of the material.