Heating up for a new academic year

By Maarten Ambaum

When most “normal” people are enjoying their holidays, many academics are gearing up for the next academic year. Come October, when our new students sit expectantly in the lecture halls, we need to present them with the latest and greatest in atmospheric science.

I have the privilege of teaching our MSc students about atmospheric physics in the autumn term. Many of our new MSc students do not fully realise how much physics is involved in doing meteorology and atmospheric science. Consider the following question: How on earth can a bit of extra carbon dioxide warm up the planet? It is not as if there is suddenly more energy coming to our planet, like turning up the heating; the sun is the ultimate source of all energy on earth, and its energy output does not change very much at all. Furthermore, the atmosphere does not warm up uniformly with increasing carbon dioxide levels: the stratosphere actually cools down! How can that be?

To answer questions like these properly and unambiguously you need to know about radiative transfer, a rather intricate and beautiful branch of applied physics. It requires quite a bit of serious study to get your head around it, but that is needed to contribute seriously to debates about climate change. My lecture on atmospheric physics is often the first time our MSc students get to see how fundamental physics is used to understand, calculate, and predict many processes in the atmosphere, from cloud drops to global energy flows. It is proper hard going but a very rewarding journey into the wonderful world of atmospheric science.

I am looking forward to it already. Let’s just hope there is some time left for holidays.


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