Department of Earth & Climate Sciences
San Francisco State University
Syllabus Fall 2014
Planetary Climate Change
(Main home page:
MW 12:10–3:00 pm
Room 604
Thornton Hall
Prerequisites: At least nine units of physical science (physics, chemistry, earth sciences, or astronomy).
Credit: Four semester units (3 lecture, 1 lab).
Counts for:
  • Single-subject subject-matter preparation program for pre-service seconday school teachers of science
  • Liberal Studies (science/math area of emphasis)
  • Earth Science B.A., Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences B.S., Earth Science Minor, and Geology B.S.
  • Text:
    The Earth System, 3rd Ed., 2010; Kump, Kasting, and Crane; Prentice Hall.
    Instructor: Dr. Dave Dempsey (Professor of Meteorology and Department Chair)
    Office: 509 Thornton Hall
    Office hours: MW 11-12; or by appt.
    Phone: 338-7716
    Table of
    1. Introduction
    2. Objectives
    3. Content
    1. Style and Organization
    2. Assessment and Grading
    3. Schedule

    I. Introduction

    What are weather and climate? How has climate changed in the past, and how do we know? What causes climate to change, and how can we predict future climate? What consequences might there be for weather patterns, oceans, and life on the earth as a result of global climate change? Planetary Climate Change explores scientists’ current understanding of the answers to these questions, sometimes applying methods of scientific investigation like theirs. Our study will encompass not only the atmosphere, oceans, solid earth, and living organisms—the separate components of the earth "system"—but also, and more importantly, the interactions among them. Those interactions are crucial to shaping the earth’s climate and hold the key to predicting future climate and understanding the role that humans might play.


    II. Objectives

    We expect students in Planetary Climate Change to develop an understanding of:

    III. Content

    GEOL/METR/OCN 405 will address aspects of planetary climate and climate change organized around the five primary questions listed below. These questions also govern the approximate order in which topics will be covered. Additional topics will be introduced along the way, including the nature and history of scientific inquiry and the role of technology and computer models in the context of climate change research; basic physical principles underlying climate and climate change; and time scales of climate change.

    1. What Is Climate?
      1. Definition
      2. Observations
        1. planetary averages
        2. spatial variations in temperature and precipitation
          1. variations with latitude: tropical rainforests, subtropical deserts, temperate midlatitudes, etc.
          2. variations between continents and oceans/large lakes
          3. variations across ocean basins and across continents
          4. variations with elevation and across mountain ranges
        3. short-term (daily to interannual) temporal variations
      3. Energy budgets
        1. concept of a budget
        2. principles of radiation
        3. atmospheric composition and thermal structure, including the ozone layer
        4. absorption spectra
        5. the greenhouse effect
        6. regional and latitudinal budgets
          1. variation of solar heating with latitude
          2. variation of infrared emission with latitude
          3. transport of energy poleward by ocean and atmospheric circulations
          4. the water cycle: transfer of energy between ocean and atmosphere
        7. the seasons

      4. Atmospheric and ocean circulations
        1. causes and influences (differential heating, pressure differences, earth's rotation, friction)
        2. Hadley cells in the tropics and subtropics (cloud patterns, pressure patterns)
        3. midlatitude cyclones (cloud patterns, high/low pressure systems, fronts) and other storms
        4. connections to regional climate regimes
    1. How Has Climate Varied in the Past?
      1. Types of evidence of long-term change
        1. sedimentary rocks, marine sediments
        2. geochemistry, oxygen and carbon isotopes
        3. fossil assemblages
        4. landform analysis
      2. Reconstruction of past climates
        1. proxy data for temperature and precipitation
        2. past climates
      3. Shorter-term climate variations
        1. El Niño/La Niña
        2. Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO)
    1. How Does Climate Change?
      1. Changes in solar radiation reaching the planet.
        1. variations in solar output
        2. orbital variations
      2. Changes in planetary albedo
        1. changes in polar ice cover
        2. changes in cloudiness
        3. changes in aerosol concentrations (natural and anthropogenic)
        4. changes in vegetation and land use
      3. Changes in greenhouse gas concentrations.
        1. the carbon cycle: removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
          1. weathering of rock (via precipitation)
          2. dissolving directly in oceans
          3. photosynthesis
          4. human activities
        2. the carbon cycle: input of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere
          1. volcanoes (plate tectonics)
          2. carbonate formation (oceans)
          3. decomposition of organic material (land)
          4. human activities
    1. How Does the Earth's Climate Behave as a System?
      1. External forcing
      2. Internal climate interactions and feedbacks
        1. changes in ocean circulation
        2. changes in atmospheric circulation
    1. How Will Climate Change in the Future?
      1. Computer climate models
        1. principles of construction
        2. limitations
        3. verification
      2. Forecasts of global warming
        1. consequences
        2. uncertainties

    Reading will be most likely be assigned (time permitting) from all or parts of chapters 1-8, 12, and 14-16 in our primary text (Kump, Kasting, and Crane, The Earth System, 3rd Ed.). The text is relatively terse and sometimes more advanced than we expect you always to understand upon first reading, so supplementary, more basic background reading will be assigned where appropriate. Additional reading from the literature (mostly Scientific American) will be assigned in the last month or so of the course and will serve as the basis for in-class discussions.

    IV. Style and Organization

    Our thrice-weekly, 2-hour class meetings can accommodate a combination of computer lab exercises, physical laboratory activities, small-group problem-solving, and whole-class discussions in addition to traditional lectures, films, and demonstrations. In practice there will be no formal distinction between the official "lab" and "lecture" portions of the course. We will often use an inquiry-based instructional approach, in which you will investigate physical phenomena or geophysical data, and try to interpret and explain what you observe, before getting much formal introduction to the topic via assigned readings and lectures. For this approach to work, you have to prepare for classes in advance and attend and participate consistently. Several computer lab exercises early in the course will use software called My World GIS ( Another lab activity will use a commercially-available modeling software called STELLA. (Both software packages are installed in the Department of Earth & Climate Sciences' computer labs in TH 604, 607, 513 (the GEL), and 518 (the ESL).) Yet other lab activities will access data and other information via WWWeb browsers.

    V. Assessment and Grading

    Assignment Type Weight
    Pre-class Quizzes (on reading assignments from the text, administered via iLearn) 10%
    "Clicker" questions posed in class (credit for some based on correct response and for others simply for responding) 5%
    In-class Quizzes (four total) 20%
    Lab exercises and homework problems 20%
    Close reading and annotation of articles from the literature (2 required sets of articles plus best 2 out of 4 additional sets), based on reading questions provided about them 10%
    Contribution to discussions about articles from the literature (2 discussions required, plus best 2 out of 4 additional discussions) 5%
    Facilitation of one of the six discussions about articles from the literature 5%
    One-page written summary of each set of articles (2 required sets plus best 2 out of 4 additional sets) based in part on the discussions 15%
    Oral presentation and short written summary, or longer written summary, of an aspect of contemporary climate change 5%
    In-class participation 5%
    Total possible for the course 100%

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