HONR228O: Carbon Cycle and Climate Change
Tuesdays 4:30 - 7 pm, Room: CSS 2428    Credits: 3 
Prof. Ning Zeng, Dept. of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science
and the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center
MLO CO2 MLO observatory
Outline and content
Professor's Work in Progress
Books, Grading, Office Hours
Student Project Examples


Climate change is a major challenge we face in the 21st century. What is the science behind the conclusions of the Nobel-prize winning International Panel on Climate Change? How can CO2, a trace gas in the atmosphere, have such a large influence on climate? Where does the carbon come from and where does it go? What can we do about the carbon and climate change problem?

This course will address these questions by introducing the fundamentals of the Earth's carbon cycle, a key biogeochemical cycle that controls Earth's climate and life. The course will focus on the changing characteristics of the carbon cycle on several timescales, ranging from geological, glacial-interglacial, interannual-interdecadal, and the more recent anthropogenic influence on carbon cycle and climate, as well as the future carbon-climate interaction in global warming scenarios. The carbon cycle in the atmosphere, land, ocean and the biosphere will be addressed. The underlying human activities such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation that are responsible for the increase in the atmospheric CO2 and our future options in dealing with the carbon problem such as alternative energy and carbon sequestration will be emphasized.

The course will consist of lectures, class discussions, student presentations, and projects. Discussion sessions will debate the current scientific, technological, economical or societal issues pertinent to climate change and carbon cycle. Readings and projects can be on any of these issues, including critiques on methods and novel ideas that may help us solve the CO2/climate problem. Back-of-envelope calculations will be emphasized to assess the order-of-magnitude of the problems, but more advanced techniques are also encouraged if you are willing to take on the challenge.

CORE: Interdisciplinary and Emerging Issues [IE]


1. Fundamentals  (2-3 weeks)
    Historical background
    The natural carbon cycle
    The anthropogenically altered carbon cycle

2. Fundamentals of climate change (1 week)
    What determines the Earth's temperature?
        Energy balance of the Earth: 1 layer model
        Albedo and Greenhouse effect
    Climate feedbacks: water vapor, clouds, snow, carbon

3. Processes underlying the natural carbon cycle (1-2 weeks)
    Seasonal cycles

4. Sources and sinks of anthropogenic carbon (1 week)
    Fossil fuel emission
    Land Use: deforestation and regrowth
    The 'missing' carbon sink on land
    Sinks in the ocean and a lot more

5.  Variability and past changes in the carbon cycle and climate (1 week)
    Disturbances such as fire
    Recent warming induced changes, espeicially in the arctic region
    Glacial-interglacial cycles
    Last 500 M years and beyond

6. What's happening to the carbon cycle now and future projections (1 week)
    Recent changes
    Integrated assessment
    Carbon-climate feedbacks

7. What can we do with the CO2/climate problem? Carbon management, energy use and options for the future (2-3 weeks)
    Rnewable energy resources
    Carbon sequestration
    Climate policy making: accounting for the environmental cost of economic activities

Group discussion and whole class debate
(2-3 weeks)

1. The Rudimann hypothesis: Was CO2 from deforestation by early civilizations responsible for avoiding the next ice age?

2. Is it feasible to sequester carbon via wood burial and storage?

3. Can we reach a deal? Mock climate negotiation.

Experiments, field trips and measurements (1 week plus out-of-class time)

1. Measuring atmospheric CO2 concentration in selected places: classroom, buildings, plants, roads

2. Ocean acidification: demo and hands-on

3. How much carbon forest regrowth takes up in the US? Field trip and measurements.

Note: Discussion, lab and field work will be intertwined with the lectures.

: Prof. Ning Zeng (CSS 2417, phone 301-405-5377)

Office hours: by appointment/drop by

Text book
: no required textbook
Required Reading:
CO2 Rising: The World's Greatest Environmental Challenge
by Tyler Volk. Hardcover: 223 pages. The MIT Press (October 31, 2008). A Book review at Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 91 (3), March 2010.

Grading method:

Student grades will be based on: homework assignments (20%), quizzes (30%), discussion/participation (10%) and projects/presentations (40%).


Possible project ideas (to be expanded/refined):

Why is W. Africa so climatically sensitive?

The future of the Sahel

Global Warming: transient CO2, atmosphere/mixed layer ocean

Global Warming: emission, coupled carbon-climate modeling

What determines the northern limit of monsoons?

Causes of climate change over the last 1000 years?

Using space aerosols to counter global warming:  dust at the Lagrangian point

Student project examples