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4.1 Fundamentals of Climate Science

Climate science is a mature science, with a large body of technically-sophisticated and specialized literature. The goal of giving a complete and substantive introduction to its fundamentals in anything as short as a single section of this dissertation is surely impossible to achieve. I’ll refer the curious reader to a number of secondary sources[1] for further clarification of the terms I’ll present here, as well as for elaboration on concepts I don’t discuss. My objective here is just to present the bare minimum of terminology necessary to make the rest of our discussion comprehensible. I’ll highlight some of the subtleties later on in this chapter (and the next), but many important details will necessarily be left out in the cold (so to speak), and some of the concepts I do discuss will be simplified for presentation here. Whenever possible I’ll flag these simplifications in a footnote.

Let’s start with distinguishing between the study of the climate and the study of the weather. We can think of weather as a set of short-term, more-or-less localized facts about the prevailing atmospheric conditions in particular places. Questions about whether or not it will rain tomorrow, what tonight’s low temperature will be, and so on are (generally speaking) questions about the weather. The study of climate, on the other hand, consists in studying both the long-term trends in the prevalence of certain weather events in particular places (is it, on average, raining more or less this century than it was last century?), and also in studying the factors that produce particular weather events (e.g. the interplay between ocean and atmosphere temperatures that produces hurricanes generally). Standard definitions used by climatologists


  1. Dawson & Spannagle (2009) is perhaps the most comprehensive and accessible general reference; I’d recommend that as a first stop on a more detailed tour of the climate science literature.

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