Department of Earth & Climate Sciences

Fall 2017

ERTH 430:
Fluid Dynamics
in Earth Systems

Section 01
(Lecture class schedule #6926;
Lab class schedule #6927)

Lecture: Wednesday, 9:10-11:00 am
Lab: Friday, 9:10 – 12:00 pm

513 Thornton Hall

Prerequisites: MATH 226; PHYS 111/112 or (recommended) PHYS 220/222; MATH 227 recommended; or consent of instructor.
Credit: Three semester units.
Text: None required.

Required: iClicker2 remote "clicker" for use with a student response system. Available for purchase at the SFSU Bookstore ($52.81 + tax with partial refund/buy-back when done, or $39 used, or rent for the semester for ~$20.72)

Instructor: Dr. Dave Dempsey, Professor of Meteorology
Office: 515 Thornton Hall
Office hours: M 3–4 pm, T 11am–1pm, Th 2–3 pm, or by appt.
Phone: 338-7716
Table of Contents
  1. Scope of ERTH 430
  2. Style and Organization of ERTH 430
  3. Grading
  4. Schedule of Quizzes and Assignments


Fluid dynamics is the study of motions of fluid (air or water) and the handful of physical principles that govern its behavior. Because fluid dynamics addresses questions about both the state and evolution of the fluids, it lies at the heart not only of understanding how fluids behave but also what their future state will be. ERTH 430 introduces you to the equations that express the governing physical principles, and to ways of simplifying, interpreting and applying those equations to understand observed fluid motions beneath Earth's surface, on the earth's surface, in streams, lakes, and oceans, and in the atmosphere.

ERTH 430 officially assumes that you already understand mathematical ideas such as differentiation and integration, Newton's 2nd Law (m × a = ∑F), and Newton's law of universal gravitation, which we will nonetheless review as we go along, and it will introduce other ideas such as coordinate systems, vectors, and others as needed.

Course Objectives

ERTH 430 should give you some understanding of how we describe the state and motion of fluids and of the dynamical behavior of fluids in Earth systems as it is constrained or governed by a few, basic physical principles. The course will also introduce you to a structured method of solving quantitative physical problems, which should improve your quantitative problem solving ability not only in ERTH 430 but in many other areas that require solving quantitative physical problems.

The physical principles that govern fluid behavior can be expressed mathematically. These equations are powerful tools that we can use to understand both qualitatively and quantitatively how fluids behave. By the time you've completed ERTH 430 you be able to demonstration that you can:

  1. interpret (and in some cases derive) the physical meaning of the terms in the governing equations;
  2. describe the relations between variables in the equations;
  3. recognize when to apply assumptions to simplify the equations in different physical contexts, and apply those assumptions; and
  4. identify strengths and limits of simplified solutions to the governing equations.

You should also be able to interpret graphical representations of fluid flow and other fluid properties in terms of the physical meaning of the governing equations.

We will take advantage of the linear wave tank in the classroom to conduct experiments where you can learn to apply some of the skills listed above.

The faculty of the Department of Earth & Climate Sciences have established student learning outcomes (SLOs) for graduates of the Earth Sciences B.S. and B.A. degree programs. Those SLOs are listed below. I have italicized the SLOs that students who complete ERTH 430 successfully should either be able to meet or have made significant progress toward meeting.

  1. Scientific principles and methods Apply the scientific method to solve problems in the Earth sciences, which includes making observations, asking scientific questions, forming and testing hypotheses, and analyzing and evaluating the results.
  2. Process-level understanding
  3. Application to societal issues
  4. Communication


Because ERTH 430 class size is relatively small, to some degree we have the luxury of adjusting and pacing the material we cover to address your individual backgrounds. We can afford to be very interactive, with lots of questions and discussion and much less straight lecture than in many other classes. That means that you must come prepared almost every day, or the discussions could be very one-sided, much to your discomfort!

You will be assigned homework problems intermittently. We will practice solving problems, work with visualizations of fluid flows, and do physical experiments in our wave tank. You will learn just enough about the MATLAB programming/graphics package to use it for several labs as well.


ERTH 430 assumes that you have a basic understanding of calculus, including differential calculus and (to a lesser extent) integral calculus (MATH 226), and that you are familiar with Newton's Laws of Motion, especially his 2nd law (PHYS 111/112 or 220/222). One of the secondary goals of ERTH 430 is to help you continue to become a better physical problem solver.


The computers that we'll use most often are MacBook Pro laptops in TH 513. These machines use Apple, Inc.'s Mac OS X operating system, a flavor of UNIX. Workstations running UNIX are extremely common in the scientific community.

Reading Assignments

You'll be given reading assignments from various sources, whenever possible accompanied by a set of "Reading Questions" designed to help you identify the most important points made by the assigned reading. I expect you to have completed any previously assigned reading before coming to class meetings that cover the corresponding material. The Reading Questions will sometimes serve as the focus of participatory in-class activities. Whenever possible I will post pre-class quizzes based on the assigned reading, to be completed on iLearn before class starts.

Class Style

We'll spend class time in discussion, small-group problem solving, and lecture modes, as well as on lab-like, in-class problem-solving exercises, some of which will count as lab assignments.

Students with disabilities who need reasonable accommodations are encouraged to contact the instructor.  The Disability Programs and Resource Center (DPRC) is available to facilitate the reasonable accommodations process. The DPRC is located in the Student Service Building and can be reached by telephone (voice/TTY 415-338-2472) or by email ( (

SF State fosters a campus free of sexual violence including sexual harassment, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, and/or any form of sex or gender discrimination. If you disclose a personal experience as an SF State student, the course instructor is required to notify the Dean of Students. To disclose any such violence confidentially, contact:

The SAFE Place: (415) 338-2208 (
Counseling and Psychological Services Center: (415) 338-2208 (

For more information on your rights and available resources:


Pre-class quizzes (on iLearn, based on assigned reading) 5%
In-class "clicker" questions
(scored responses to "clicker" questions in class; worst two dropped)
(unscored responses to regular "clicker" questions in class; one day's worth dropped)
Short quizzes (no more than 3 in-class quizzes, 20-30 mins each) 20%
Homework problems 15%
Labs 30%
Final Exam 20%
Total possible for the course 100%

I aim to grade on an absolute scale:
90–100% A's
80–89.9% B's
70–79.9% C's
60–69.9% D's
below 60% Never mind

However, if for some reason the assignments seem too difficult for the class, I reserve the right to grade on a curve instead, which should effectively raise the grade for many people.

Homework problems will generally be provided to you at least two class meetings or six days before they are due, whichever comes first. Lab assignments will usually be provided on the day of the lab. All assignments are due at the beginning of class on the due date. Beware that I reserve the right to grant or withhold credit for late assignments, so you should not count on receiving credit for them.

Class Schedule

The schedule will be updated as the semester proceeds and due dates become known. (I reserve the right to modify this schedule in response to unforeseen events.) For the latest version of the schedule, see:
Home Page |*| ANNOUNCEMENTS |*| Syllabus |*| Schedule of Assignments, Handouts, Quizzes, etc.