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Columbia University

Frontiers of Science: Climate & Us

Columbia University via edX

Overview

This course begins by exploring the factors that set the Earth's temperature, considering the basic equation, Energy in = Energy out. We focus on the role of astronomical factors (sunspots and the eccentricity, obliquity, and precession of Earth in its orbit around the Sun), the reflectivity of Earth's surface, and the composition of the Earth's atmosphere in setting the Earth’s climate.

The temperature record, based on instrumental measurements, strongly indicates that the Earth has been warming over the last several decades, and dramatically so since 1975 when Wally Broecker, a former lecturer in Frontiers of Science, first coined the term "global warming." At the same time, the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, most prominently carbon dioxide, has been rapidly increasing. To put these recent changes in context of past data, we learn about paleoclimate proxies (e.g. tree rings and ice cores) and how it is that scientists can learn about the temperature and atmospheric content going back thousands and even millions of years ago.

With this knowledge, we confront past data, climate models, and fictions that lack scientific basis. We consider various tools used in climate science that allow scientists to compare contemporary climate change with natural changes that have occurred in the past, as well as to generate future climate forecasts. By investigating carbon isotope content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we learn about the origin of the extra carbon and the role that humans have played in its release into the atmosphere. Finally, we explore the role of positive and negative feedback loops and why they make climate modeling particularly challenging. Feedback loops play an important role not only in climate, but in various biological processes, economics and more, and represent a critical scientific habit of mind taught in this course.

Syllabus

Section 1: Global Warming

  1. Introduction
  2. Climate vs. Weather
  3. Energy from the Sun
  4. Sun’s Energy Variations - Astronomical Forces
  5. Other Sources of Energy

Section 2: Global Warming: The Earth’s Surface

  1. The Atmosphere
  2. Greenhouse Gasses
  3. Carbon Isotopes
  4. Sources of Carbon Dioxide

Section 3: The Global Temperature

  1. The Rising Average
  2. Energy Balance

Section 4: Past Climate

  1. The Tree Ring Record
  2. The Ice Core Record
  3. 400,000 Years of Carbon Dioxide

Section 5: Future Climate

  1. Energy In Equals Energy Out
  2. Feedback Loops & Climate Models
  3. Foreshadowing
  4. Debunking Myths

Section 6: Global Plans and Prospects

  1. Energy Facts
  2. The Paris Accord
  3. The Present and The Future

Taught by

David J. Helfand and Ivana N. Hughes

Reviews

4.9 rating, based on 9 Class Central reviews

Start your review of Frontiers of Science: Climate & Us

  • Anonymous
    An incredibly insightful and engaging course. Expertly delivered and extremely valuable to anyone who wants to learn a baseline knowledge in global warming.
    Easy to follow to understand.
    Thank you so much for putting this educational piece together.
  • Profile image for Catherine Covington
    Catherine Covington
    This course was excellent- very succinct and clear presentation of information, and the course sections were designed to be delivered in a short sitting, so even if you just have 10 minutes a day, you can easily tackle a section. Highly recommend!
  • Anonymous
    It’s a good introductory class to global warming, climate change. I will probably use the information to my biology classes with my students, so they can understand what is happening right now and think of solutions.
  • I enjoyed this course very much. I learned new things about the earth, and climate. I would recommend this course to anyone that want to get information on climate.
  • Anonymous
    This is a good course to understand how the Earth climate works and how human actions have been altering it over the last 100 years.
  • Anonymous
    This course was extremely informative and well paced. The information was thorough and simple, making the course easy to follow. I was able to learn a lot about climate change and global warming, along with the general Earth.
  • Anonymous
    It is a very informative course, easily comprehensible, that explains in depth the global warming issue and presents possible ways to mitigate it.
  • Profile image for Mikhail Meksin
    Mikhail Meksin
    The best and most comprehensive, accessible and understandable resource I've found that explains the climate crisis, global warming and the science at work in this critical issue that our planet faces. As someone without any scientific training or background, I was able to follow, learn and gain from the content of this course. I highly recommend this to any learner, of any age, looking to better understand global warming, the climate crisis, its causes and what to do about it.
  • Profile image for Mary Ellen
    Mary Ellen
    Excellent instructor and content.

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