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BSc Physics with Theoretical Physics / Course details

Year of entry: 2021

Course unit details:
Climate and Energy P607

Unit code EART30362
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 6
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course conveys the importance of human energy use and its effects on climate, in the recent past and in the future. It ranges from providing knowledge of detailed understanding and calculation of key physical processes, such as aerosol-cloud feedback mechanisms and greenhouse gas radiative effects, to global scenario assumptions of current and future energy usage combining fundamental knowledge of energy flows in the Earth’s planetary system using examples such as ENSO and thermohaline circulations to population growth dynamics and fossil and renewable energy lifecycles. Students are introduced to simple modelling approaches, and finally to evaluate hypotheses of future energy usage including off-planet energy provision and population migration.

Themes covered will include:

  • Introduction to Earth’s Climate – Then & Now
  • The state of the atmosphere over the last 800,000 years, past CO2 and greenhosue gas levels, proxies for past temperature.
  • The rapidly changing state of the atmosphere since the industrial revolution
  • Simple models of radiative transfer, absorption and scattering in the atmosphere by gas molecules and aerosols
  • Scattering of radiation by clouds
  • Planetary albedo
  • The Grey model of the atmosphere
  • The global radiative budget and factors that control it
  • A simple aerosol model, including single scattering albedo and aerosol optical depth concepts
  • Basic cloud processes, cloud optical depth and effective radius, and how these depend on macro and microscale processes
  • The Twomey 1st aerosol-cloud indirect effect, calculations using field observations.
  • Why aerosol cloud interactions represent the largest uncertainty in climate models –The CO2 pump handle
  • Basic links between the atmosphere and ocean circulations, ENSO El Nino and L Nina – can these be influenced by climate warming?
  • Climate Change Evidence - a review of the IPCC Assessment Reports on Climate Change
  • Man’s Use of Energy and Population Prediction for the end of the century
  • Energy resources & Reserves – Calculating fossil fuel lifetimes
  • Alternative Energy Sources – Renewables – can they fill the gap? Implications for society.
  • The future of Planet Earth – Geo-engineering approaches – should we do it? – or should we move? – Space habitats and Mars

This course unit detail provides the framework for delivery in 20/21 and may be subject to change due to any additional Covid-19 impact.  Please see Blackboard / course unit related emails for any further updates.



BSc Physics Students: None

MPhys Students: None

BSc Env.Sci + Atmos. Students (3+2): None

BSc Env.Sci  – EART10032 Global Climate Change


The aim of this course is to provide students with a deeper understanding of the processes controlling climate. The unit aims to educate students in being able to debate climate change using evidence from the geological and astronomical fields. At the same time the unit aims to deliver more detailed understanding of fundamental atmospheric processes including basic models of radiative transfer and aerosol direct and aerosol-cloud indirect effects and ocean circulation processes. Anthropogenic effects on climate are placed within historical context comparing atmospheric conditions from recent geological and pre-industrial revolution timescales and how these have changed over the past century and a half. Various lines of evidence will be discussed and analysed by comparing both natural climate variability processes, including Milankovitch and Solar Variability cycles, with known greenhouse gas radiative effects.

The second part of the course looks at man’s use of energy, using top down analysis of global energy budgets, how these depend on global population growth, and to estimate what man’s energy needs will be by 2100. The student will understand the various energy sources available from fossil fuels to solar. They will be able to calculate the lifetimes of non-renewable fossil fuel resources, how these will change over the next century, and how the planet must respond to anticipate equitable standards of living for a growing population.


Learning outcomes

On the successful completion of the course, students will be able to: 

  • Describe Earth’s climate, past present and future and how human’s energy has and will affect climate change.
  • Describe what is meant by greenhouse gas radiative forcing, feedback mechanisms and how these are calculated.

  • Describe and discuss natural climate variability and how this compares with anthropogenic perturbation induced climate change.
  • Describe the governing large-scale circulations of the planet, how these are monitored and how they contribute to regional climate patterns and weather.

  • Describe future climate change scenarios using basic approaches to calculate global population growth and future global energy usage.

  • Describe approaches used to compute the useful life cycles of fossil fuels and calculate their lifetime using resource and reserve databases.
  • Use top down and bottom up approaches to calculate global energy flow and available renewable energy sources to compare with current usage and changes in coal, oil, gas and nuclear resources.
  • Discuss and extrapolate future energy needs and compare and contrast options to fill the energy gap including geo-engineering versus off-planet migration of populations via O’Neil space habitats or Mars?


Syllabus (note: there are two 1 hour lectures per week):

Week 1: Composition of the atmosphere and the atmospheric energy balance. Sun-Earth radiation balance and Milankovitch cycles

Week 2: Radiative balance in the atmosphere

Week 3: Energy flow in the biosphere, atmosphere and ocean

Week 4: A simple climate model, a simple aerosol model. Earth vs Venus climatology

Week 5: Climatology of the Earth

Week 6: Circulation of the oceans and the atmosphere - ENSO

Week 7: Evidence for natural and anthropogenic climate change - IPCC

Week 8: The pattern of energy consumption now and in the future. Lifetime of fossil fuels.

Week 9: Future climate change predictions; emissions reductions and their impact on future energy consumption.

Week 10: Contribution of alternative/renewable energy and nuclear resources to fill the energy gap.

Week 11. A reminder - Renewable energy progress. Energy efficiency, COP, Carnot cycle and heat pumps. Where do we go from here?

Week 12 & 13:  Tutorial lectures. The final two lectures will cover problem solving based on past examination questions. Students are encouraged to contact the lecturer after this week to discuss solutions to these problems either by email or by arranging a personal/group student-guided revision lecture based on past examination questions and questions raised following lectures and background reading.


Teaching and learning methods

Learning during this course unit builds from one lecture to the next, consisting of 2 lectures per week for 11 weeks over semester 1 (22 hours in total). These provide context and ideas with practical examples needed to complete the 11/2 hour final examination. Two hours of student-guided revision lectures are provided together with optional student guided examination problem solving tutorials which will summarize key content from the syllabus.

For effective learning, it is advisable that students attend every lecture and practical class, and revise the previous week's materials between lectures. For Physics students taking this option experience has taught us that one lecture per week together with revision using the on-line podcasts is sufficient to complete the main learning outcomes.

Formative problem-solving questions will be covered in the tutorial lectures for students to work on in their own time and to bring to personal tutorials (optional) if required. The lecturer will be available to provide feedback on these via BlackBoard and personal email.

The answers to questions will be given on BlackBoard and feedback from these will also be placed on BlackBoard to gauge progress in understanding, applying the course content and overcoming any problems using different approaches.

General communication outside of lectures will be via Blackboard announcements and e-mail as required.

The assessment of the course will consist of a 11/2 hour summative exam at the end of Semester 1 with students being required to answer  2 questions from 4, one of which will be a summative-essay question. For postgraduate students requiring units to complete DTP requirements (5 credit option) this will be assessed by an essay requiring additional background reading.

Students are encouraged to utilise the wide variety of learning resources that are available in this subject area. This includes signposting (links) to publicly-available informal contextual resources (e.g. NOAA & NASA videos, Wikipedia, Climate News Articles), directed reading, and podcasts listed on the Blackboard site.

Formative individual feedback on tutorial answers and past examination questions. Further feedback will be provided on the example questions set in lectures. Feedback on exam performance will be provided via a drop-in session early in semester 2 for students to view their marked exam scripts as required.

The course is delivered through 22 standard lectures and 2 tutorial-revision/discussion lectures using past examination problems as examples for problem solving and derivations. Personal or group tutorials are available subsequently on request. Discussion via BlackBoard noticeboard of specific problems and topics is encouraged and anonymysed questions surrounding common problems and concepts highlighted with solutions can be provided by BlackBoard NoticeBoard. Climate change updates using scientific and news websites are provided – both links and summary articles are available via BlackBoard.


Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 100%

Feedback methods

Exam - General exam cohort-level feedback via blackboard, students will be able to view marked exam scripts in a hosted open session. 

Also tutorial lectures - Feedback provided immediately via question and answer, and via BlackBoard noticeboard for general formative and one to one email as require

Recommended reading

A full reading list is provided via BlackBoard with reference to specific chapters. There is no single recommended textbook. The following is brief summary.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 4th Scientific Assessment Report, 2007 (;

J T Houghton;The Physics of Atmospheres; 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 1986

R G Barry and R J Chorley; Atmosphere, Weather and Climate’, Routledge, 1987

J P Peixoto and A H Oort;Physics of Climate; American Institute of Physics, 1992.

J T Houghton and others;Climate Change 2001;Cambridge University Press, 2001.

For historical interest and context and more relevant to links between environmental-climate and pollution topics: Mark. Z. Jacobson. Atmospheric Pollution: History, Science, and Regulation. ISBN-13: 978-0521010443.

Sustainable Energy - without the hot air. D.J.C. MacKay. 2008. Free pdf download.

E Harder; Fundamentals of Energy Production; Wiley and Sons, 1982.

S S Penner and L Icerman;Energy, Volume 1; Addison Wesley. 1981.

Renewable Energy, Edited by G.Boyle, Open University, Oxford. 2004.

Sustainable Energy: Choosing Options. by Tester, J.W. et al. 2005, MIT Press. Earth System Science: Jconson et al. 2006, Elsevier Academic Press.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 1.5
Lectures 24
Seminars 2
Independent study hours
Independent study 72.5

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Martin Gallagher Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Personal tutorials offered (optional)

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