Geography Course 331

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Course Description

"Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get." – Mark Twain


During Mark Twain's time, people knew that climates varied across the earth, but believed that the global climate system itself was stable. Now we know that climate varies on all time scales, and climatologists are working hard to determine just how much change to expect within our lifetimes, and our children’s lifetimes. Climate variation is driven by external forces (for example, the amount of energy emitted by the sun and gradual changes in the earth’s orbit); internal feedbacks between the atmosphere, oceans, biosphere, and ice sheets; and, more recently, human impacts upon the global energy, carbon, and water cycles. Paleoclimatologists contribute to global change research by studying the climate system prior to significant human influence, in order to understand 1) natural trends and levels of variability, 2) the critical governing mechanisms, and 3) impacts and feedbacks with other physical and biological components of the earth system.

This class focuses upon climatic changes during the Quaternary Period, which encompasses the last 1.6 million years, includes the rise of human civilizations, and extends to our present. Climatically, the defining characteristics of the Quaternary are 1) regular cycles between glacial and interglacial periods and 2) abrupt shifts in the climate system. The field is changing rapidly and new discoveries appear every week. The goals for this class are fourfold:

  1. Historical: Review the major climatic events and trends during the Quaternary, spanning timescales from the last 1,000,000 years to the last 1,000 years.
  2. Process: Understand the physical processes controlling the behavior of the earth system and its components (atmosphere, oceans, cryosphere, biosphere, etc.). Understand also how climatic variability results from a combination of external forcings and internal dynamics within the earth system.
  3. Methodological: Learn how paleoclimatologists collect, date, and analyze a staggering variety of paleoclimatic records, including ocean and lake sediment cores, ice cores, tree rings, corals, and speleothems.
  4. Communication: Continue to develop skills in thinking and writing clearly, with particular attention paid to learning how to critically read the scientific literature.

This public website provides a copy of the course syllabus and external links... students taking this course can access additional resources through Learn@UW.