Detailed Course Information – Geography 520

Geography 520: Climatology

Instructor: John Arnfield

Course Description

    Geography 520 is an introduction to the climates of Planet Earth and to the processes that determine them. It covers the nature of our atmosphere, the energy exchange between the planet and the sun and space, global patterns of temperature, precipitation, wind and other meteorological elements, the causes and types of precipitation, synoptic scale features (like fronts, mid-latitude and tropical cyclones, etc), patterns of climate types over the continents and climatic change (including the possibility of a human role in this). Geography 520 is a self-contained course in climatology for those requiring some background in this area. In addition, it functions as the starting point for a more advanced sequence in climatology within the Department of Geography.

This course is a quantitative introduction to climatology but is a pre-calculus treatment. Required mathematical skills are limited to those demanded for entry to the university (i.e. essentially equivalent to Math 050 – Precollege Mathematics – or Course Code S on the Math Placement Test) encompassing the arithmetic of fractions and decimals, basic algebra, graphing equations, geometry, exponents, lines and slopes, area, right angle trigonometry and quadratic equations. These skills are employed in part in weekly exercise work intended to test the student’s grasp of concepts covered in lectures and reading.


Ahrens, C. Donald. 1994. Meteorology Today: an Introduction to Weather, Climate, and the Environment, (5th Edition), West Publishing. The text is supplemented by an extensive amount of handout material, packets of which can be purchased from the Cop-Ez center in the basement of Bricker Hall.


    The student’s final grade will depend upon her/his performance in four pieces of work: 2 midterm examinations (worth 19% each), a final examination (worth 37%), and exercise work (worth 25%).

Course Outline

    1. The Atmosphere: Composition and Structure. Its vertical structure and chemical composition; atmospheric moisture.
    2. The Atmospheric Energy Budget. Solar radiation outside the atmosphere; atmospheric depletion processes; terrestrial radiation in the atmosphere; the energy budget of the earth-atmosphere system; net radiation; spatial variations in the surface energy budget.
    3. Water in the Atmosphere. Condensation; clouds and precipitation; the hydrologic cycle.
    4. The Gas Laws: Heat and Temperature Changes: Atmospheric Stability. Behaviour of gases; the equation of state; the hydrostatic equation; adiabatic processes; atmospheric stability; the saturated adiabatic lapse rate.
    5. Atmospheric Motion: General Principles and Small-Scale Wind Systems. The pressure gradient force; the frictional force; causes of horizontal pressure variations; local winds.
    6. Atmospheric Motion: Large-Scale Wind System. The effect of the Earth’s rotation; the Coriolis force; the geostrophic wind; curved flow and the gradient wind; frictional effects in the planetary boundary layer; the thermal wind.
    7. The General Circulation of the Atmosphere. The radiative imbalance; Hadley cells and angular momentum; idealized circulation models; the extratropical circulation; the angular momentum balance; energy and westerly momentum transport by the general circulation.
    8. Air Mass Analysis. Air masses, their nature and properties; thermal modification, dynamic modification; secondary air masses; North American air masses and related weather.
    9. Fronts and Cyclones. Fronts, their characteristics and identification; cyclogenesis; the mid-latitude cyclone, its life cycle; occlusion; frontal wave families; relationship of surface disturbances to upper level flow; the mid-latitude jet stream.
    10. Convection, Thunderstorms and Tornadoes. Characteristics, causes and distribution.
    11. Tropical Disturbances and Hurricanes. Characteristics, structure and significance.
    12. Climates of the World. The spatial variability of climatic elements; climatic classification; regional climates of the world (with an emphasis on the Americas).
    13. Climatic Variability and Climatic Change. The history of the Earth’s climates, with special emphasis on Pleistocene and post-glacial fluctuations; hypotheses of climatic change; global warming and potential anthropogenic effects on climate.

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Updated: 17/09/2018