BSc Physics with Theoretical Physics / Course details

Year of entry: 2022

Course unit details:
Climate and Energy: Past, Present and Future

Course unit fact file
Unit code EART36002
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? No


This course illustrates the importance of understanding a range of processes from the microscale to the planetary scale in the Earth’s atmosphere and how these interact with both internal and external forcing agents, natural and anthropogenic, to control the Earth’s climate. These processes are placed in context by showing changes in atmospheric composition on geological timescales and how these are related to changes in the Earth’s radiative input due to orbital precession and obliquity changes as a result of the Milankovitch cycles, which are still being hotly debated including potential for so-called “climate tipping-points”. Brief comparison with the atmospheric profiles and trends on other planets will be discussed to highlight atmospheric albedo changes.

Students are introduced to the basic equations of radiative transfer, atmospheric scattering and absorption processes and how these can be used to build a simple model to predict the temperature profile in an atmosphere. Students are then introduced to the basic greenhouse effect equations and predictions. The final part of the course will link place the natural science components into a socio-economic context by summarising those principles are used to understand human population growth and its associated energy use, both past and in the future. Global energy availability is then discussed using top-down estimates in order to understand global energy sources, renewable and non-renewable (fossil fuels). The students will also learn how to calculate the lifetime of these energy sources and debate the energy source mix that will be needed to satisfy predicted future energy needs.


The unit aims to:

  • Educate students about past and present changes in earth’s atmospheric composition and the basic biogeochemical and astronomical drivers for those changes
  • Highlight the basic methods used to provide a picture of past changes in planetary climate, the pros and cons of these different observation methods and how they have been combined and improved
  • Demonstrate results from cutting edge of satellite remote sensing platforms and how these are transforming knowledge of climate change and aiding testing of new climate models
  • Explore changes in physical and chemical feedback pathways in different regions of the globe due to aerosols and the contribution from natural and anthropogenic sources
  • Review and make use of basic equations for molecular and aerosol scattering and absorption and their effects over different surface types and on vertical temperature and radiative profiles within the Earth’s atmosphere and how these compare with profiles from other planetary bodies
  • Educate students in man’s global energy use and how to calculate top down estimates of natural energy cycles and how man’s energy use compares with these
  • Educate students in how global population changes with time and what special and economic factors influence these changes and how they factor into estimates of man’s future energy use
  • Educate students in the available energy sources, both renewable and non-renewable and how these have changed over history and how they must change in future to accommodate man’s predicted energy use.


Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Martin Gallagher Unit coordinator

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