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Unit information: Environmental Physics in 2019/20

Please note: Due to alternative arrangements for teaching and assessment in place from 18 March 2020 to mitigate against the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, information shown for 2019/20 may not always be accurate.

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Environmental Physics
Unit code PHYS30027
Credit points 10
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Fellows
Open unit status Not open

120 credit points at Level I/5 in single or joint honours Physics.



School/department School of Physics
Faculty Faculty of Science


This third-year undergraduate physics course introduces students to the physical mechanisms that drive the motion of the oceans and the atmosphere. Students will learn how to describe the oceans and the atmosphere in terms of thermodynamics, radiation transfer and basic fluid dynamics.

In studying the role of the atmosphere in the thermodynamics of the Earth, students will learn the theory underlying current concerns about climate change and in studying how the interplay of thermodynamics and fluid dynamics gives rise to oceanic and atmospheric circulation patterns they will learn what possible effects of climate change may have on the weather.

Fundamentals of Fluid Dynamics
Students will be introduced to the mathematical methods of fluid dynamics in the simplest case of inviscid incompressible fluids, neglecting more advanced topics such as viscosity and thermal transport.

Atmospheric Thermodynamics
Students will study how radiation balance determines the temperature of a planet in the presence and in the absence of an atmosphere.
Simplified models of the greenhouse effect and related feedback mechanisms will be discussed in reference to the threat of climate change.

Atmospheric Dynamics
Students will study how thermal processes drive the motion of the atmosphere, applying their understanding of simple fluid dynamics and thermodynamics to understand the form and origins of atmospheric circulation patterns and how extreme weather systems form.

Environments of Other Planets
Students will learn how the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere makes it different from other planets and what the climate of other planets can teach us about the Earth’s environment.

Intended learning outcomes

Students will be able to:

1.Apply simple concepts from the mathematical description of fluids, these may include:

  • Apply Bernoulli’s principal to simple problems in fluid dynamics
  • Use fluid dynamics concepts such as Euler’s equations and Bernoulli’s equation to describe simple wave phenomena.

2.Apply principals of fluid dynamics and thermodynamics to explain environmental phenomena such as:

  • The planetary equilibrium temperature
  • The structure of a planet’s atmosphere
  • The adiabatic lapse rate of the atmosphere
  • The role of the environmental lapse rate in various weather phenomena
  • Feedback mechanisms affecting the climate.

3.Explain the physical principals underlying concerns about climate change, examples may include:

  • Global warming
  • Ozone layer depletion.

Teaching details

18 X 1 hour lectures, plus 6 x 1 hour problems classes.

Assessment Details

2 hour written examination (100%)

Reading and References

  • Fundamental Planetary Science: Physics, Chemistry and Habitability, Lissauer and de Pater


  • Planetary Sciences, de Pater and Lissauer
  • Principles of Planetary Climate, Pierrehumbert
  • The Physics of Atmospheres, Houghton
  • An Introduction to Atmospheric Physics, Andrews