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Gaia: Introduction to The Earth System

Robert Crane

Course Type:
Earth Systems Science

Course Size:


Earth 002: Section 002 is a non-mathematical introduction to the Earth, and to the forces and processes that shape the present-day global environment. The course focuses on global-scale human-induced changes: global climate change; destruction of the stratospheric ozone layer; and tropical deforestation, species extinction, and the loss of biodiversity.

The discussion of these environmental issues occupies about 40% of the course. Unlike other "environmental" courses, this one sets these issues in the context of the long-term evolution and natural variability of the Earth system. Thus the course is structured around three major themes--the issues of global change, time scales of change, and understanding the Earth as a system.

Course Context:

This course, offered in Spring of 2001 at Penn State University has no prerequisites. The class includes 2 lectures per week Tuesday and Thursday). Classroom time is spent answering questions, in further discussion of the central topics or theme for the day, and in tying the material back to previous topics.

Course Goals:

By the end of this course, students should:
  1. Recognize that:
    • the Earth operates as a complex system
    • there is considerable interaction between the different components of this system (e.g. atmosphere, oceans, solid Earth, and biota)
    • changes in one part of the system can be expected to impact all others to a greater or lesser degree
  2. Develop an understanding of how the Earth system operates at the global scale, and the consequences this has for regional variability
  3. Understand how this system has evolved through time
As a result of this course students to, students should:
  • Be able to synthesize this information to better appreciate the complexity of modern global change issues
  • Be in a position to make more informed judgements on the nature and seriousness of these issues

Course Content:

This course covers topics such as global energy balance, climate regularion and variability, global warming, ozone depletion and biodiversity.

Teaching Materials:

The text required for this course is:
Kump, L.R., Kasting, J.F., and Crane, R.G. (1999). The Earth System, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 351pp.

The website contains a class schedule with topics, the course desription (syllabus) and an announcements page.


Final Grades will be determined from:

  • Four in-class exams worth 15% each
  • Homework assignments worth 15%
  • In class assignments worth 10%
  • Final project worth 15%

References and Notes: