Paul Schopf

Professor of Oceanography, Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Earth Sciences

CLIM 102

Global Climate Change: Modeling and Predicting an Uncertain Future

A gen-ed course for undergraduates at all levels who want to know just how global warming forecasts are made. This course meets the gen-ed requirement in science with a lab. The first offering is in the Spring 2013 semester.

Climate science is the study of the Earth's atmosphere, oceans, ice and the physical processes that make Earth a habitable planet that sustains life. From this basis, scientists have combined observation with theory to understand the important effects of greenhouse gasses in regulating the climate. Scientists now believe that the greenhouse gasses that have already been added to the atmosphere will cause significant changes in our climate for centuries to come, but that the effects of these changes are just now being seen in observations. Through the use of computer models, scientists attempt to forecast what the future climate might look like, and what kinds of changes are in store. This class looks at computer modeling, how it has evolved, and why scientists turn to it. We examine the basis for the models and their limitations, and how scientists cope with the uncertainties associated with the forecasts they make. Along the way, we will develop a sense of how computer simulation fits within the classic scientific method involving observation, theory and experimentation.

You CAN do this!

First things first: if you have had geometry and algebra in high school so you know what an equation is and that there is an equation for the surface area of a sphere or radius R, then welcome aboard. (By the way, you don't need to remember the equation for surface area of a sphere, just so long as you are willing to use wikipedia) We will teach you the physics you need to understand what we are doing. And, you don't need to know (or learn) how to program a computer, although you will use them to conduct experiments in the lab. What you DO need is an interest in the future of our planet, and a willingness to learn just how scientists have figured out why global warming is happening. Along the way we will consider some interesting questions:

What is a greenhouse gas and why do we care?

You have heard about global warming - there is something about carbon dioxide (CO2) increasing in the atmosphere that is causing the planet to warm. Do you care to know why? Wonder why a greenhouse gas is a greenhouse gas? Most of the atmosphere (nitrogen and oxygen) are NOT greenhouse gasses. Find out why CO2 and methane and water vapor ARE greenhouse gasses. And just what is a "greenhouse" anyway? They stay hot inside. Know how they work?

OK, climate changes, but my uncle says that this is all just sunspots and natural variability

Do you wonder just how it is even possible that we could do so much to our planet so as to cause the glaciers to melt, the sea ice to retreat, the oceans to rise? Come on, this is just not common sense.

It might not be common sense, but it is what science tells us is happening and will continue to happen for a long, long time. Sure, some of the science is difficult, but we will cover the easy stuff that describes the basics.

How can you say that all these storms are due to global warming?

Hurricane Sandy (NOAA/NASA image)

You have heard it on the news: scientists are making more claims that extreme weather is caused by climate change. Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 summer drought in the US, the Russian heat wave, the list goes on. It looks like big storms that used to happen about once in 100 years now happen every 5 to 10! Is this due to global warming? How can you tell? Want to find out? Want to know just what they mean?

If you can't predict the weather, how can you predict climate change?

Learn the mysteries of what is different about predicting weather and predicting climate. Yes, we can not predict the weather for more than several days, but you predict climate yourself all the time: Next winter will be colder than next summer, September is likely to be cooler than August. There is physics behind your success, and it is not difficult to understand. This physics can also be used to tell whether winters 20 years from now will be warmer than winter this year. Climate scientists use the world's largest supercomputers to solve the equations of physics and make detailed forecasts, but far simpler models tell us important things.

What do I need to know before taking this class?

Remember: don't worry, you don't need to know how to write or solve the equations of physics, and you don't need to write a computer program. We have simple climate models on-line in our lab, and you will learn how scientists construct and run experiments, and see how changing CO2 alters climate.

One of the key points you will learn is that computer models are like laboratory equipment. If you take a chemistry course with a lab, do you have to be able to design a precision balance scale or how to blow glassware? Not at the gen-ed level, right? Our computer models are all programmed, documented, calibrated, tested, verified, and the "error bars" are known, so we learn how to perform experiments with the models, and then use the on-line experimental test-bed to run our experiments.

But better than chemistry lab, if you would rather sleep in or do something else while the lab sessions meet, you can conduct your lab experiments at 2 in the morning, since the models are on-line and always available. If you come to the computer lab at the assigned time, we can guarantee a stellar lab assistant to guide everyone, fellow students to talk with, and resources to help you over some hurdles that we have not anticipated. You should probably plan on coming to the first several labs, then decide whether you are a little unsure (then keep on coming), or you are at least brilliant enough to do this while sipping a coffee in the Johnson Center.

The only pre-requisite is that you know basic geometry and simple algebra. It would help if you have heard of atoms and molecules, but the most important requirement is that you would like to learn how this global warming thing actually works.

Why would I want to know this stuff?

Are you contemplating a career in economics, public policy, sociology, management, biodiversity, conservation, public health, politics, recreation and tourism? Until recently, you could ignore climate, but it is becoming clear that a basic understanding of climate change is a highly valued skill. You don't have to become a climate scientist, but it would sure be handy to know what they do. And it would be good to know what can be predicted, how reliable such predictions are, and where the limits are.

Imagine advising farmers in Africa to plant more maize, because this will lead to better outcomes, but ignoring the fact that climate forecasts for the next few months indicate that severe drought is likely. Or imagine coming up with a plan for a new resort venture in the Maldives featuring very expensive sea-side property that will take years to amortize. So many plans and hopes for the future rest with an underlying assumption that the climate will remain the same. Plan on getting ahead of the curve!

View the Syllabus Here