Using Physical Models to Understand Earth Systems

Instructor: Marc Chiacchio

Marc has taught Bachelor level students climate science and has a PhD in climate science.

In order to better understand Earth systems, changes in landforms, topographic maps, ice cores, and physical models are used. In this lesson, you will become familiar with examples on how these tools are used to study the Earth's climate.

Concepts of Climate Change

Have you ever wondered what causes the climate to change? Is it due to landform changes that have taken place because of deforestation or is it due to the cars we drive? Or both? Though the climate changes due to the Earth's natural cycles, it also changes due to human activities such as food production, transportation, and population density. This type of change is known as an anthropogenic forcing.

A landform is a type of surface on the Earth such as a thick forest. Deforestation is the clearing of such a forest on a large scale, which can have devastating effects on the landform. Once large amounts of trees are cut down, problems with erosion and sedimentation can occur if a landform such as a lake is nearby.


An example of deforestation.

Tools to Study Earth's Climate

Erosion and sedimentation, due to deforestation can possibly cause a change in the topography, which is defined as the natural physical features of the Earth's surface such as elevation and rivers, for example. By studying changes in the topography over time, we can learn how much the landform has changed. This is achieved through studying topographic maps, which contains detailed information on the landform that is being studied.


An example of a topographic map.

Another useful tool used to study the Earth and the climate change occurring now is a core sample. Using these, scientists can uncover useful information from an earlier time in the Earth's climate. For example, by drilling a portion of ice out of a glacier, we can learn about the air that has been trapped in the ice for thousands of years. This technique can allow us to study how much the Antarctic ice sheet melted the last time the Earth's climate warmed and compare it to the amount caused by today's warming. This would give crucial information as to the effect of such warmings on the climate.

ice core

An example of an ice core.

Earth System Models and Applications

The Earth system is a term that describes four components which are essential in understanding the Earth on a smaller level such as the hydrosphere, geosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. To study each of these components as well as their interactions, physical models needed to be developed that involve computer codes which solve mathematical equations to produce relevant data such as temperature, relative humidity, winds, and pressure. These physical models incorporated basic Earth processes including the interaction of the land with the atmosphere and the ocean with the atmosphere. As the physical model evolved, additional processes were added whereby the interactions between the ocean and atmosphere were coupled with land and ice models. Such complexity enabled scientists to gain an even deeper understanding of how the growth or reduction of ice in the poles, for example, respond to a changing land surface or rise in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

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