Climate Changes

Mea Cook

Williams College,
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate


The content of the class is 1/3 climate dynamics, 1/3 climate history, and 1/3 recent/future climate change.

Course Size:

Course Context:

This is a 200-level class with 3 1-h lectures per week and one 3-hour lab every other week. Problem sets and exams are 50% narrative, 50% quantitative questions. The prerequisites are (1) one introductory course (or higher) in phyiscs, chemistry or geosciences and (2) a passing grade on the quantitative placement exam (proficiency in algebra and trigonometry). The students who take this class are mix of (1) geoscience majors, (2) environmental studies majors and concentrators, (3) those taking the class to fulfill the science and/or quantitative distribution requirement.

Course Goals:

Students should be able to:
  • predict the average temperature (habitability) of a planet based on its orbital period.
  • predict the temperature profile of an n-layer atmosphere with greenhouse gases.
  • predict the seasonal precipitation and temperature cycle for any location on Earth.
  • evaluate whether a feedback is positive or negative.
  • interpret temperature/salinity changes from a marine oxygen isotope curve.
  • formulate and solve an isotopic mass balance equation relating ice volume/sea level, temperature and d18O.
  • formulate and solve an isotope mass balance equation relating carbon cycle changes (fossil fuel burning, marine methane hydrate release, changing in size of terrestrial biosphere) and d13C.
  • evaluate the importance of a climate-changing mechanism based on the timescale/time period of interest.
  • evaluate the scientific merit of mass-media reports on climate science, and explain it to their family/friends.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

I try to incorporate current research and/or historical context for each topic, to give the students a sense of discovery, and how climate science happens. This context shows the students the applications of the facts/equations they are learning. I do example problems in lecture, give them more practice on problem sets, then assess their learning with closed-book exams.