The Global Carbon Cycle

Syllabus, Fall 2017

Meteorology 597 (will be 561)

The Global Carbon Cycle
Class meetings:  Tu/Th 9:05-10:20am, F 2:30-3:45pm 126 Walker
This class uses Canvas for online resources.

Course description: This course focuses on one of the most challenging environmental issues of our era, the accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) in our atmosphere due to human modification of the global carbon cycle. We will study the processes, terrestrial, oceanic, atmospheric, and anthropogenic, that govern the sources and sinks of carbon into and out of the global atmosphere, and will study the methods used to quantify the carbon cycle. The primary focus is on the recent past (industrial era) and near-future (~100 years), when carbon cycle management decisions will play a critical role in climate change. The course starts with a review of global atmospheric CO2 and CH4 trends during the industrial era, and examines how atmospheric data inform our understanding of the global carbon cycle. The course then studies contemporary terrestrial biosphere, marine, and anthropogenic processes governing the carbon cycle. The paleorecord of the carbon cycle is reviewed, including glacial / interglacial cycles. Carbon cycle predictions and projections, including options for human management of the carbon cycle, are presented and evaluated. Ethical and economic factors, in addition to physical and biological processes, are considered.

The course is appropriate for graduate students or advanced undergraduates with a sound background in quantitative sciences or engineering. The course is suitable for students from a wide variety of degree programs across the university.

Course goals:  By the end of the course, successful students will:

  • Recognize and demonstrate an understanding of many of the physical, societal and biological processes governing the earth's contemporary terrestrial, oceanic and anthropogenic carbon cycle; 
  • Demonstrate a quantitative understanding of how these processes interact to create the contemporary, global carbon balance;
  • Demonstrate an understanding of how the earth's carbon cycle has differed in the past, and how it may change in the future; 
  • Demonstrate the ability to understand, navigate and evaluate current carbon cycle research literature;
  • Demonstrate familiarity with a broad core of current literature concerning the carbon cycle, and investigate a subset of this literature in more detail;
  • Have gained hands-on experience with some of the current methods of studying the carbon cycle; 
  • Have improved their professional skills including critical reviews of research literature, and communication and collaboration with students with varying disciplinary expertise.

Kenneth Davis, Professor, Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science
512 Walker Building, 814-863-8601,
Office hours:  9-10 am Monday and 5-6 pm Thursday.  You are welcome to stop by my office outside of office hours, but to be sure that I will be available, email in advance.


There are no formal prerequisites.  A foundation in science and mathematics including comfort with calculus-based descriptions of environmental processes, and ability to perform numerical analyses with carbon cycle data and models is recommended.  The course is intended primarily for graduate students in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences or related fields.  We also welcome advanced undergraduates from science or engineering majors.


Classes will be a mixture of lectures, discussion, and student-led presentation of literature and research projects.  Students should participate actively in class, complete assignments promptly, and ask questions when they have them.  Students will be asked to lead discussions concerning current literature and take an active role in creating some of the experiments and exercises they pursue for the class.

Students in this class are expected to write up their problem sets individually, to work the exams on their own, and to write their papers in their own words using proper citations.  Class members may work on the problem sets in groups, but then each student must write up the answers separately.  Students are not to copy problem or exam answers from another person's paper and present them as their own; students may not plagiarize text from papers or websites written by others.  Students who present other people's work as their own will receive at least a 0 on the assignment and may well receive an F or XF in the course.  Please see: Earth and Mineral Sciences Academic Integrity Policy:, which this course adopts. To learn more, see Penn State's "Plagiarism Tutorial for Students."

Readings will be taken from a variety of sources.  Our primary means of supplying these readings will be the class web site. Experiments will be conducted using resources from around the university, depending on student interests.

Assignments will include problem sets, reading, literature reviews, and independent projects. Students will be evaluated on the problems sets, literature reviews, and independent projects. The problem sets will cover core topics that all students are expected to learn and master. The literature reviews and independent projects will be tailored to individual student interests. Collaborative efforts that build upon the individual interests and expertise of the students to create a greater whole will be encouraged.

Problem sets (approximately 5, weighted equally): 50%. Goal is active learning of the fundamentals of the topic.

Three of the following, totaling 50% of the grade:
Experiment/project (1 required): Research experience in the field. Topic to be determined via individual discussion with each student. (15% of total grade)
Literature review (1 required): A deeper exploration of current literature, in an area of interest to the student. Topics to be determined via individual discussion with each student. (15% of total grade)
A third literature review or project (student's choice) that includes an in-class presentation. The presentations will be integrated into the major course topics. (20% of the total grade). 

Problems sets are assessed based on accuracy and completeness of the responses. The projects and literature reviews have clear metrics. The literature review asks the student to present the core elements of 4-6 research papers focused on a common theme, and to synthesize the overall understanding of the topic brought together by these papers. The project asks the student to pose a simple research question and execute (with assistance from the instructor) a simple experiment to test that research question. The results must address that simple question and include an assessment of uncertainty.

Course grades will be determined as an overall percentage, with A for 90-100%, B for 80-90 %, C for 70-80%, D for 60-70% and F for less than 60%.  If the overall grading proves more challenging than expected, I may relax this curve.

Course Content.  See the documents “topics” and “schedule.”

Course Copyright. All course materials students receive or to which students have online access are protected by copyright laws. Students may use course materials and make copies for their own use as needed, but unauthorized distribution and/or uploading of materials without the instructor’s express permission is strictly prohibited. University Policy AD 40, the University Policy Recording of Classroom Activities and Note Taking Services addresses this issue. Students who engage in the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials may be held in violation of the University’s Code of Conduct, and/or liable under Federal and State laws.

For example, uploading completed labs, homework, or other assignments to any study site constitutes a violation of this policy.

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities. Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University's educational programs. Every Penn State campus has an office for students with disabilities. The Student Disability Resources (SDR) website provides contact information for every Penn State campus: ( For further information, please visit the Student Disability Resources website (

In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled, participate in an intake interview, and provide documentation: If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus’s disability services office will provide you with an accommodation letter. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early in your courses as possible. You must follow this process for every semester that you request accommodations.

Attendance. This course abides by the Penn State Attendance Policy E-11:, and Conflict Exam Policy 44-35: Please also see Illness Verification Policy:, and Religious Observance Policy: Students who miss class for legitimate reasons will be given a reasonable opportunity to make up missed work, including exams and quizzes.  Students are not required to secure the signature of medical personnel in the case of illness or injury and should use their best judgment on whether they are well enough to attend class or not; the University Health Center will not provide medical verification for minor illnesses or injuries. Other legitimate reasons for missing class include religious observance, military service, family emergencies, regularly scheduled university-approved curricular or extracurricular activities, and post-graduate, career-related interviews when there is no opportunity for students to re-schedule these opportunities (such as employment and graduate school final interviews).  Students who encounter serious family, health, or personal situations that result in extended absences should contact the Office of the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs (AVPSA) and Student Care and Advocacy for help:  Whenever possible, students participating in University-approved activities should submit to the instructor a Class Absence Form available from the Registrar's Office:, at least one week prior to the activity.

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Counseling and Psychological Services at University Park  (CAPS): 814-863-0395
Counseling and Psychological Services at Commonwealth Campuses
Penn State Crisis Line (24 hours/7 days/week): 877-229-6400
Crisis Text Line (24 hours/7 days/week): Text LIONS to 741741

Assistance with Textbooks. Penn State honors and values the socioeconomic diversity of our students. If you require assistance with the costs of textbooks for this course, contact the Office of Student Care and Advocacy (120 Boucke Building, 863-4926, For additional need related to socioeconomic status please visit

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Deferred Grades. If you are prevented from completing this course within the prescribed amount of time, it is possible to have the grade deferred with the concurrence of the instructor. To seek a deferred grade, you must submit a written request (by e-mail or U.S. post) to your instructor describing the reason(s) for the request. It is up to your instructor to determine whether or not you will be permitted to receive a deferred grade. If, for any reason, the course work for the deferred grade is not complete by the assigned time, a grade of "F" will be automatically entered on your transcript.

Mandated Reporting Statement. Penn State’s policies require me, as a faculty member, to share information about incidents of sex-based discrimination and harassment (discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, and retaliation) with Penn State’s Title IX coordinator or deputy coordinators, regardless of whether the incidents are stated to me in person or shared by students as part of their coursework.  For more information regarding the University's policies and procedures for responding to reports of sexual or gender-based harassment or misconduct, please visit Penn State's Office of Sexual Misconduct and Prevention & Response website.

Additionally, I am required to make a report on any reasonable suspicion of child abuse in accordance with the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law.

Diversity, Inclusion, and Respect. Penn State is “committed to creating an educational environment which is free from intolerance directed toward individuals or groups and strives to create and maintain an environment that fosters respect for others” as stated in Policy AD29 Statement on Intolerance. All members of this class are expected to contribute to a respectful, welcoming and inclusive environment and to interact with civility.

For additional information, see:

Accessible Syllabus. Notes: Any syllabus posted online (e.g. a Word/PDF file or an online syllabus) should make destinations clickable links such as is done throughout this page. Also, in order to comply with Penn State Policy AD69 (Accessibility of Penn State Web Pages,, PDF documents cannot be the sole source of presenting online information. Such documents include syllabi, homework assignments, and scanned notes. 

Disclaimer Statement. Please note that the specifics of this Course Syllabus can be changed at any time, and you will be responsible for abiding by any such changes. Changes to the syllabus shall also be given to the student in written (paper or electronic) form.