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Unit information: Environmental Physics in 2022/23

Please note: It is possible that the information shown for future academic years may change due to developments in the relevant academic field. Optional unit availability varies depending on both staffing, student choice and timetabling constraints.

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. Wakeford
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

The unit will be taught through a combination of

  • asynchronous online materials, including narrated presentations and worked examples
  • synchronous group problems classes, workshops, tutorials and/or office hours
  • asynchronous directed individual formative exercises and other exercises
  • guided, structured reading

Assessment Details

Written, timed, open-book examination (100%)


If this unit has a Resource List, you will normally find a link to it in the Blackboard area for the unit. Sometimes there will be a separate link for each weekly topic.

If you are unable to access a list through Blackboard, you can also find it via the Resource Lists homepage. Search for the list by the unit name or code (e.g. PHYS30027).