ATOC 4500 Special Topics in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences – Upper Division: Why Does Climate Vary?

Instructor Contact:

Dezheng Sun, PhD (MIT)


About the Course:

The state of the climate system has always been varying. Why? A fundamental cause for the propensity of the climate system to constantly vary its state of being is its own dynamics. This course illuminates the role of dynamics in climate change and variability through presenting some major climate phenomena in the climate system. These phenomena include the Madden-Julian Oscillation, the Monsoons, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the Medieval Climate Anomaly, the Little Ice Age, and the recent Global Warming. Observed characteristics of these phenomena are first described. Key processes behind them are then exposed. The state-of-the-art understanding of why these phenomena take place is provided, together with the known unknowns. Along the way, some key mathematical tools are introduced with the aim to better equip the students in their own pursuit of a deeper understanding of why the state of the climate system has varied in the way we have observed, and how it may change in the future.

Course Prerequisites: Basic knowledge about Newton’s laws of motion and the first law of thermodynamics is helpful, but not required.


By the end of the course you should be able to:

  • Describe the machinery of the climate system: basic components of the system, interactions among the components, fundamental forces, major circulations systems, equilibriums, and instabilities.
  • Describe the spatial and temporal characteristics of major climate phenomena causing climate variability/change
  • Name the major processes/forces behind these climate phenomena
  • Explain why these climate phenomena take place
  • Analyze existing theories for these climate phenomena and formulate your own research questions.
  • Apply the knowledge and understanding of these climate phenomena to explain or attribute the cause for a particular observed climate condition
  • Demonstrate the success or failures of simulations of the major climate phenomena in model simulations
  • Formulate a conceptual model for why the state of the climate system has changed the way we have observed.
  • Formulate a conceptual model to project future climate change

Required Texts:

All materials are provided online

Grading (out of n points):

Earned % 94-100 87-93 81-86 75-80 69-74 63-68 57-62 51-56 45-50 39-44 33-38 <33
Letter Grade A A- B+ B B- C+ C C- D+ D D- F

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