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Science of Climate Change online class starting next week on Coursera

Filed under: — david @ 14 October 2013

Maybe you remember the rollout a few years ago of Open Climate 101, a massive open online class (MOOC) that was served sort of free-range from a computer at the University of Chicago. Now the class has been entirely redone as Global Warming: The Science of Climate Change within the far slicker Coursera platform. Beginning on October 21, the class is free and runs for 8 weeks. The videos have been reshot in a short and punchy (2-10 minute) format, for example here (8:13). These seem like they will be easier to watch than traditional 45-minute lectures from a classroom. It’s based on, and will show you how to play with, all-new on-line computer models, including extensive new browsing systems for global climate records and model results from the new AR5 climate model archive, an ice sheet model you can clobber with slugs of CO2 as it evolves, and more. Come and watch the train wreck join the fun!

Course content

The class follows the general structure of Open Climate 101, based on the textbook Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast. This is class about science, but it is intended to be understandable by people without a strong science background.

Weeks 1-4 start from the very simplest model for the temperature of a planet, and build a picture of the complexity of the real climate system on Earth, with the greenhouse effect and climate feedbacks.

Weeks 5-6 consider the past and future carbon cycle.

Weeks 7-8 explain where we are and what can be done.

New On-line Climate Stuff

Coursera seems like a powerful medium for teaching any topic. But my class in particular is like no other Coursera class that I’ve heard of, in that it offers a suite of on-line interactive models that you can see here. They are always up and publicly available, so you teachers can throw students at them, no problem.

A time-series browser provides access to the GHCNM (NOAA link is currently shut down) global meteorological station monthly mean temperatures (7169 stations), and global glacier length records (472 records). These records can be compared with climate model results from the new AR5 model results, extracted from their grids. There are 12 different models and four scenarios, including Historical, HistoricalNat (natural-only), RCP2.6 (an optimistic ramping-down scenario), and RCP8.5 (less optimistic). This is a very open-ended system; my intent is to allow students to investigate a topic of their own devising, which they will write up and submit to grading by other students, a bit of Coursera wizardry.

An AR5 output mapper makes colored maps of output from climate models, including 3-D atmospheric temperature, specific humidity, cloud fraction, and 2-D fields of precipitation, soil moisture, runoff, leaf area index, and snow cover. These are monthly mean values from the Historical then RCP8.5 scenarios. The browser buffers the maps so that you can switch between them quickly, or show them in a slide show or movie. This is only a tiny fraction of the AR5 model respository, but it’s still enough data (about 130 GBytes) that serving this to a large MOOC audience is going to be a challenge.

The time-series browser and the map maker are both designed to be easily extended (by me, not by users). The system takes AR5 netcdf files directly as they download from the CMIP archive, and new climate records can be added to the time-series browser as simple csv format. Maybe realclimate readers or students in the class will have suggestions of what to add (I almost hate to ask!).

A new model for comparing the climate impacts of CO2 and CH4, called the Slugulator, lets you release slugs of either greenhouse gas and compare the antics that ensue. A favorite feature of mine is the comparison of the energy yield from fossil fuels, next to the total greenhouse energy trapped over the lifetimes of the gases.

And we have an interactive ice sheet model, you can clobber with slugs of CO2 (or just drag the temperature around) as it’s running. This comes from Frank Pattyn’s Excel-based GRANTISM, recoded as javascript by Martin O’Leary. I added the replay button and the CO2-clobbertron myself, however.

Plus there are retreads of the old favorites like Modtran, with which you can demonstrate the band saturation effect, Geocarb, which shows the long tail of fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere, and lots more.

[Response: Updated links 10-31-13]

21 Responses to “Science of Climate Change online class starting next week on Coursera”

  1. 1
    Magma says:

    There is an error on the AR5 output mapper with the display of the global datasets from 80°E to 180° E.

    [Response: Ah, it begins! Out of date production server. Fixed now. David]

  2. 2

    Sounds very cool, indeed–no pun intended, of course–er, I mean, ‘naturally.’

    Thanks for offering this!

  3. 3
    John Sharber says:

    I took the Climate 101 course and had a lot of fun. I have a fairly strong science background but not in the area of climate, so there was a good amount of learning and clarification of the science.

    I did feel sorry for the liberal arts students in the class, must have been a handful for them.

    I’m looking forward to the new release, maybe I’ll do the labs this time.

  4. 4
    Edward Greisch says:

    But I just started the python course so I can take Pierrehumbert’s course. Will your new course repeat?

    [Response: Yes, I intend to keep it going and run it every year, or however often they do these things. Anyway, I remember you from Open Climate 101, so you have probably seen this stuff before. Enjoy Ray’s class! David]

  5. 5

    This is wonderful. This widespread access to climate science is crucial to all. Thank you so much.

  6. 6
    Chris Colose says:

    Thanks David! The coursera setup is really nice, and the discussions/questions amongst students have a much higher signal-to-noise content than in other internet forums. Most people actually want to learn instead of point-score.

    I ended up acting as a “community TA” in the current online coursera course from the The University of British Columbia. I’ll contribute to the discussions in your class too- it can be overwhelming with hundreds or thousands of students. People can check out the discussion boards and modules from the UBC course for a sense of how the online discussions end up going. Open Climate 101 was nice so I’m sure this course will be enlightening.

    [Response: We’re just starting to think about how to set up the discussion forums; any advise you have will be appreciated. David]

  7. 7
    Paul Schopf says:

    I had great success teaching from your book (and online models) last spring, and very much appreciate the way the course is organized. This year, I am hoping to “flip” the class, with assignments to do the “lectures” as homework and do problems and experiments in class. This sounds like a great resource to do that. Thanks, again.

    [Response:Links to the video clips are now posted here. Doug MacAyeal here is doing that. Kids I don’t know are calling out “Hey, Archer!” from across the street. David]

  8. 8

    I hope you might accept a question about the Slugulator mentioned A great data visualization.

    If methane quickly converts to some amount of CO2 – does the Slugulator take that into account? The red and blue lines for CO2 and methane should interact, shouldn’t they? Or perhaps a methane line should show it’s CO2 level.

    [Response: The CH4 does convert to CO2 in about a decade. You can see it by turning the CO2 slug to 0. David]

  9. 9
    Dan Bloom says:

    Sounds great, and I hope everyone will get “acclimatized” to this kind of course. The Univ of Oregon winter 2014 semester has a CLI FI literature and film class for grad students led by Stepanie Lemenager PHD there. COOL! again now puns intended for either acclimatized or cool. BTW: a big CLI Fi news story coming from the UK this Friday, google for it: cli fi, the emerging new climate fiction genre for novels and movies, if you haven’t heard yet:

  10. 10
    ReduceGHGs says:

    We need to move to sustainable generation and use of energy for the sake of our future generations. All the world’s respected scientific institutions that considered the issue concur; HUMANS are warming the planet and the consequences are not good. This is well established science and has been for many years.

  11. 11
    Edward Greisch says:

    How to set up the discussion forums: NOT the way the University of Melbourne did it, where popularity among poets counts in your grade.

    [Climate Change 
by Prof. Rachel Webster, Dr. Maurizio Toscano, Prof. Jon Barnett, Prof. John Freebairn, Prof. David Jamieson, Prof. David Karoly]

    It will take a lot more than one course to get the innumerate humanitologists and fine artists to understand that Nature is in charge. Laboratory courses must predominate. Make them take the remedial math courses until they can take the Engineering and Science Core Curriculum over their remaining 3 years. I’m dreaming.

  12. 12

    Please fell free to use my film “Someplace with a Mountain” if you like. It is about sea level rise in Micronesia. There is a 25 min version at
    THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR WORK, steve goodall

  13. 13
    Fred Magyar says:

    Edward Greisch @11,

    “It will take a lot more than one course to get the innumerate humanitologists and fine artists to understand that Nature is in charge.”

    I’m in favor of both mathematical and scientific literacy however your statement is both arrogant and won’t solve the problem. maybe you can listen to and watch this TED talk by microbiologist John Bohannon. He has a program called dance your PhD.

    John Bohannon: Dance vs. powerpoint, a modest proposal

    The ball’s in your court to find a better way to get through to those who learn in different ways!

  14. 14
    Jim Eager says:

    Careful Edward, I have an arts degree and have been able to understand the basic physics, chemistry and maths of climate change just fine, thanks to David’s book and on-line lectures and sites like RC. Not all arts majors are innumerate, just as I’ve seen plenty of scientific papers and power points that would benefit greatly from better visual presentation and communication skills.

  15. 15
    goneinsec says:

    This course looks great! I have a question about the AR5 output mapper. I was wondering if you were planning to add variables from other CMIP5 models since only a few (of about 30) models are available here. Thanks.

    [Response: I spent many days loading up my browser with file downloads from the AR5 model repository, and got as many models for each variable as I could. Some were downloading incredibly slowly, some had servers that weren’t responding, and some variables I couldn’t find. Eventually I called it good enough. The browser does accept the raw netcdf files as they are downloaded from the archive, so if anyone is miffed that their model is left out, and can forward me the files, I can install them easily. David]

  16. 16
    wili says:

    Not to pile on, but climate change is ultimately a problem of the humanities: since it is humans who caused it, understanding humans is the only way to really understand its root causes.

    Knowing the science is, of course, important for understanding how CC is playing out and what the likely consequences may be, and I join with others in applauding the availability of what sounds like an excellent course.

    But the natural sciences alone will always be insufficient for a full understanding of GW, particularly about ultimate causes and solutions.

  17. 17
    Jim says:

    Thanks for posting about the climate change class. I just signed up.

  18. 18
    Karan says:


    I’ve tried four times now to access that linked example of a ‘short’ lecture – from both this site and SkS. All have failed. Is the link broken?

  19. 19

    Hello David

    I think I see a way to improve the lecture a bit:
    The videos (as in the above example tagged: here (8:13) ) which is less than 10 minutes lecture – is a more than 400MB huge *.MOV file.

    Maybe the lecture videos should be added into YouTube-format for easy broadcasting without having to download locally?

    PS: Karen@18 should then not have seen the problems reported if it is made available on YouTube.

    [Response: They’re all now posted on a site call Kaltura, with links here. David]

  20. 20

    David, I’m a carbon cycle scientist myself, and since I sometime teach short courses on carbon and climate, signed up for your course to get some insight on how I might better teach the physics side of the problem. I’m really disturbed by your error converting miles/km in the first minutes of the first lecture. Aren’t you concerned that making such a “trivial” error undermines your students’s comprehension, while simultaneously creating an easy target for denier ridicule? Surely University of Chicago could afford to re-video that awkward moment. I know I would not release a video with the NASA meatball containing such an error.

    [Response:We re-shot it yesterday afternoon, should be up soon. David]

  21. 21

    Regardless of your view on whether human activity is contributing to climate change, I hope we can agree that the flaring of waste natural gas from North Dakota oil and gas fields is a terrible waste that should be quickly addressed. See photo of Earth at Night and nyt article