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Earth's Changing Climate

Earth's Changing Climate

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Earth's Changing Climate

Course No. 1219
Professor Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
Middlebury College
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4.3 out of 5
71 Reviews
73% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 1219
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  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrated, featuring around 100 graphs, diagrams and images. Diagrams featured in this course include those that easily explain fundamental geological processes including the carbon cycle and the greenhouse effect. Graphs include those that explain the average rise in global temperature throughout history and predict future trends. And images help you connect with the numerous aspects of our planet's climate, including hurricanes, volcanoes, and ice ages.
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Course Overview

In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level." Representing a consensus of hundreds of scientists, the report went on to note that human activity is "very likely" the cause.

This course of 12 half-hour lectures reviews the most up-to-date research on climate change, explaining the concepts, tools, data, and analysis that have led an overwhelming number of climate scientists to conclude that Earth is warming and that we humans are in great part responsible.

Behind the Consensus

Whatever your views on climate change, it's important to understand how the current scientific consensus on global warming evolved out of basic physical principles and a broad range of observations. In a lucid presentation designed for nonscientists, you will learn about:

  • The difference between climate and weather
  • The concept of energy balance, which governs the natural warming of the planet by the Sun and is the key to a stable climate
  • The greenhouse effect, which makes Earth warmer and more hospitable than it would otherwise be due to naturally occurring gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and water vapor
  • The carbon cycle, which controls the rate at which carbon dioxide released by fossil-fuel combustion accumulates in the atmosphere, and how long it remains to enhance the natural greenhouse effect.

Along with these and other concepts, you will investigate the "fingerprints" of global climate change, ranging from borehole temperatures to melting glaciers to the altered behavior of plant and animal species. These and other indicators show that Earth has been warming at an unprecedented rate in recent decades.

You will also explore the physical mechanisms behind these changes and their connections to the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution. And you will look at the techniques for projecting future climates, along with the options for switching to alternative energy technologies to avoid the most disruptive scenarios that now seem possible.

Your Personal Scientific Briefing

Earth's Changing Climate addresses only scientific issues and makes no policy recommendations. Instead, this course is designed to serve as your personal scientific briefing to equip you to engage knowledgeably in one of the most important environmental issues of our time. In Lectures 1–6 you will focus on the scientific basis of climate; then in Lectures 7–12 you will come to understand the human role in climate change and explore projections of future climate.

Professor Richard Wolfson is no stranger to this subject. A physicist who has written and taught extensively about climate change, in 1996 he taped an earlier course for The Teaching Company titled, Energy and Climate: Science for Citizens in the Age of Global Warming. Professor Wolfson's new course is completely updated and represents the latest research and analysis in this fast-changing field.

A master at making difficult concepts understandable, Dr. Wolfson's other Teaching Company courses are Physics in Your Life, hailed by Library Journal as "a wonderful series of lectures that make learning physics fun and interesting," and Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution, which one listener said was "as exciting as a suspense thriller!"

In Earth's Changing Climate, Dr. Wolfson brings these educational gifts to bear on a subject that, at times, can be complex and controversial. You will find his presentation clear, objective, engaging, and illustrated with fascinating examples and analogies.

The Evidence Mounts

Like many scientific problems, the gradual assembly of a detailed picture of past, present, and future climates has involved creative detective work. For example, scientists traditionally test their theories by changing different variables, but this has not been possible with theories about climate change on Earth for two reasons: It's unwise to transform the planet just to see what will happen, and there are not multiple Earths to serve as test subjects.

However, researchers have identified cases where nature has done the experiments for us:

  • Mars: Mars's atmosphere has only about 1 percent the density of Earth's and provides a test for the theory of the greenhouse effect—in this case, for a planet with a thin atmosphere. As theory predicts, Mars has negligible greenhouse warming.
  • Venus: Venus's atmosphere has 100 times the density of Earth's and is about 96 percent carbon dioxide. Here, the greenhouse effect has struck with a vengeance—just as theory forecasts—driving temperatures to 500°C, hot enough to melt lead.
  • Mt. Pinatubo: The eruption of the volcano Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 poured massive amounts of dust into the upper atmosphere and allowed scientists to test their climate models. The fall in average global temperature over the following few years was in close agreement with what the models predicted.
  • Ice Cores: Deep ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica preserve a nearly million-year-old record of Earth's past temperature and atmospheric composition, showing a correlation between temperature and carbon dioxide concentration.

Using such clues, scientists are able to connect the 0.65°C rise in average global temperature since the start of the 20th century with the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the same period. Looking ahead, they project a global temperature rise in the range of 1.5°C to 4.5°C during the 21st century, depending on the extent of worldwide economic growth and the rate of fossil fuel consumption.

An increase of a few degrees may not seem serious, but Professor Wolfson stresses that this is a global average. The rise will be more substantial in certain areas—particularly in the polar regions and over almost all land. He further notes that about 6°C separates the present-day climate from the depths of an ice age. Thus, an increase of a few degrees in global temperature is climatologically significant and may lead to many more extreme events, such as heat waves, intense precipitation, droughts, and intense tropical storms. At the same time, the sea level will be rising due to the thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of land-based glaciers and ice sheets.

Over the longer term, a cause for worry is "surprise" events that could be initiated by as-yet poorly understood processes. These include the sudden slipping of a large land-based ice sheet into the sea with a resulting surge in sea level, or a major upset in patterns of ocean circulation.

As the evidence mounts, scientists will continue to refine their picture of what the climate is doing and where it is heading, and society will continue to grapple with this problem. You can begin to address it yourself—intelligently and prudently—by investing six stimulating and rewarding hours with this course.

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12 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Is Earth Warming?
    The course begins with a look at Earth's average temperature over the past century and a half, which shows an overall warming trend. How do scientists take Earth's temperature, and how do they interpret the pattern of variation? x
  • 2
    Butterflies, Glaciers, and Hurricanes
    This lecture looks at more subtle indicators of climate change and shows how statistical analysis reveals clear "fingerprints" of change on a host of natural systems. x
  • 3
    Ice Ages and Beyond
    Thermometer-based temperature rec­ords go back only 150 years. This lecture explores techniques that scientists use to push the global temperature record back millions, even billions of years. x
  • 4
    In the Greenhouse
    Stable climate entails a balance between incoming sunlight and outgoing infrared radiation. Infrared-absorbing greenhouse gases in a planet's atmosphere alter the details of this balance, causing the planet's surface to warm. x
  • 5
    A Tale of Three Planets
    How do we know that greenhouse gases such as water vapor and carbon dioxide are associated with the warming of Earth's surface? Nature provides a climate "experiment" on neighbor planets Venus and Mars. x
  • 6
    Global Recycling
    Cycling of materials plays a role in climate, with the most important cycles being those of water and carbon. Carbon added to the system stays for centuries to millennia and adds to the atmospheric carbon content, enhancing the greenhouse effect. x
  • 7
    The Human Factor
    Fossil fuel burning by humans has in­creased the concentration of carbon di­ox­ide in the atmosphere by nearly 40 per­cent since the start of the Industrial Revolution—to levels the planet has not seen in at least a million years. x
  • 8
    Computing the Future
    Climate models are mathematical descriptions, exploring how climate be­haves in response to human-induced changes and natural factors. Most models pro­ject a global temperature rise of several de­grees Celsius over the next century. x
  • 9
    Impacts of Climate Change
    A temperature rise of only a few degrees will have significant effects. The rise will be more substantial particularly in the polar regions and over almost all land. x
  • 10
    Energy and Climate
    Energy use is the dominant reason for our increasing influence on Earth's climate. Per capita energy consumption in the United States is more than 100 times our own bodies' energy output, meaning that we have the equivalent of about 100 "energy servants" each. x
  • 11
    Energy—Resources and Alternatives
    The fossil fuels that supply most of the world's energy have many deleterious environmental impacts, one of which is the emission of climate-changing greenhouse gases. This lecture surveys alternative energy resources. x
  • 12
    Sustainable Futures?
    Avoiding disruptive climate change in the future probably means keeping atmospheric carbon dioxide to at most a doubling of its preindustrial level. This final lecture discusses several possible paths to a stable climate. x

Lecture Titles

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What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Audio Download Includes:
  • Ability to download 12 audio lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 88-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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CD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 6 CDs
  • 88-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 88-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Figures & data sources

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Your professor

Richard Wolfson

About Your Professor

Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
Middlebury College
Dr. Richard Wolfson is the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics at Middlebury College, where he also teaches Climate Change in Middlebury's Environmental Studies Program. He completed his undergraduate work at MIT and Swarthmore College, graduating from Swarthmore with a double major in Physics and Philosophy. He holds a master's degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Physics from...
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Reviews

Earth's Changing Climate is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 71.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Earth's changing climate Course is very interesting and quickly goes thru essential details too fast to absorb. Course sorely needs a full transcript. Also needs vidweo so presenter can show the figures as he presents them.
Date published: 2017-03-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Buy this for Your Skeptical Friends audio download version Professor Wolfson does an excellent job of separating science from public policy, at least until the last couple of lectures. And even then he informs his audience when he is presenting his own views rather than reasoned conclusions from sound data. While I suspect that many who might be persuaded that human causes are contributing to global climate change will never buy this course, nor would they pay attention if someone else bought it for them, I still feel that some may change their minds after listening to this course. To be sure “geoperky” in another of his excellent reviews shows that reasoned arguments, backed up by sound, extensive data can indeed be persuasive. Some reviewers did not care for Dr. Wolfson’s delivery, but I did not find it off-putting, neither in speed, nor enthusiasm. To be sure it may help to have some modest background in physics, geology or such to keep up with Dr. Wolfson at some points, but in the main only some basic math is really necessary in being able to follow the arguments. The graphs provided help in this, and I think that a video version make understating these points a bit easier. Even though my academic background (many years ago), is in physics and math (though professionally I was neither a physicist nor a mathematician) I was dissatisfied with having to look at the graphs after listening to the audio on my morning walks. I also felt that the graphic reproductions in the downloaded course guidebook were of a poor quality and seemed to not be as complete as I expected from Professor Wolfson’s descriptions. From the moment in lecture 1, when Dr. Wolfson distinguishes between weather and climate to the last lecture where he discusses paths to a stable climate, I was impressed with his scientific rigor and his ability to present logical conclusions from data, not belief. The course gave me many talking points when engaging in spirited debate. Highly Recommended
Date published: 2017-01-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Earth's Changing Climate - Good but dated I bought this course to increase my understanding of the discussion regarding man-made climate change (Ethnogenic). The professor is knowledgeable and enthusiastic. The course plan and presentation are suitable to this surface level presentation of the information, Fortunately, the professor kept pretty much to science and stayed away from policy or politics. The course was produced in 2007, so the material is a bit old, but the science of climate study hasn't changed all that much in the last 10 years. I now have a better layman's familiarity with the factors and issues involved in global climate. I learned of the methods used to gather data on the current climate and how data is inferred about climate in the past. The course is heavily focused on the last 150 years, when there is an ever increasing amount of empirical data about the earth's climate. The amount of time spent on explaining what is known or inferred about climate throughout earth's history is suitable to this overview course. I would like to know much more about climate in the past and the changes that have occurred in earth's history.
Date published: 2016-12-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Indispensable This is one of those courses that I would say contains indispensable material and explanations for anyone who wants to acquire a basic foundation of relevant, reliable information on the subject of global warming today and its context in the history of Earth's climate.
Date published: 2016-11-27
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Yawn Very tedious DVD. Climate change is real, but this just does not engage the viewer.
Date published: 2016-11-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This skeptic is now less skeptical... ...about anthropomorphic climate change (or ACC, aka AGW = anthropomorphic global warming). Prior to listening (yes, I listened to the audio download) I was not a proponent of ACC, in fact I doubted its scientific validity (the man-made parts). Due to my background in earth science, I believed that the earth's climate can change...sometimes rapidly and drastically... and has changed countless times in the past. I have witnessed geologic evidence in a variety of environments, from 2.2 billion year-old rocks in the upper peninsula of Michigan to the breathtaking valleys of Yosemite. While not denying that global temperatures are rising, I doubted that it was man-made.I bought this set of lectures to reinforce my beliefs by learning more about what 'the other side' believed. Unfortunately, Dr Wolfson's lectures caused me to rethink my position and drill down a little deeper into the subject and check into the more current thinking of this controversy. The first six lectures examine the scientific methods by which the ACC theory is based (and the IPCC)...particularly in the measurement of CO2 in the atmosphere, and how it can be 'fingerprinted' back to a source using 13C/12C ratios (Lecture 7). That particular point triggered my curiosity, and pushed me onto other sources and beyond the scant notes and graphs included in the lectures. One must look at other skeptical science points of view. The web can provide the student with a list of points made by climate change skeptics accompanied by explanations and data supporting the ACC/AGW point of view. These arguments pick up where Wolfson leaves off, and updates and confirms his conclusions with data. Thank you Dr Wolfson for a stimulating set of lectures, presented in a high-energy, rapid-fire way. I'm glad I found this set on sale and with a generous coupon (it cost under $0.50/lecture). Recommended for all those who might be interested in learning.
Date published: 2016-10-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Dull, stumbling, boring presentation Oh Dear! Is this ever DULL ! The first lecture was occupied telling us what we all know from news reports and newspapers, TV shows: that the earth's climate has been WARMING over the past several decades! Things don't get much better. I won't go into details. I will state that of HUNDREDS of Great Courses I have viewed, this is one of my worst buys ever, even on sale. NOT RECOMMENDED. Btw, his conclusion about the earth's recent temperature rise is that it is attributed to "astronomical factors related to earth's orbit". That is interesting to know,eh?
Date published: 2016-09-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Earth's Changing Climate It was very interesting and well presented.
Date published: 2016-09-03
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