The many areas of study in physics can help develop students’ understanding of the complexities of global warming, climate change, energy systems, and sustainability. Electricity, magnetism, light, thermodynamics, matter and energy, nuclear energy, motion, properties of matter—to name a few—can all contribute to greater understanding.

And problems involving global warming and climate change can help students understand conservation of energy, entropy, phase changes in matter, power and energy efficiency, as well as provide them with contexts for understanding the importance of using the right units of measure.

Following are a few sample areas as a starting point for exploration. Would these work in your classroom?

  • What happens to the solar radiation that enters our atmosphere?
  • How is sunlight transformed into heat? How do greenhouse gases in our atmosphere trap the heat?
    Note: The most common greenhouse gases are: CO2, CH4, O3, NO2, and water vapor.
  • How do changes in the area covered by ice or snow affect global warming?—and how does that affect the area covered? What is albedo? What is a feedback loop?
  • What is the volume of ice in the Greenland & Antarctic ice sheets?
    • How much energy will it take to change that volume of ice at 0°C into water at 0°C? (What is an appropriate unit for looking at such large quantities of thermal energy?)
    • When ice melts, is the volume of water the same as the volume of ice?
  • If those ice sheets melt, how much will it raise sea level? (Why do we consider only land ice when looking at global warming’s potential impact on sea level?)
  • Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel on Earth, and has the highest carbon Content. The vast majority of coal burned in the United States is used for electricity.
  • What percentage of the fuel’s actual energy content is converted to electricity?  (The average coal fired power plant is only about 35% efficient.)
    • What happens to the rest of the original energy?
  • Another common use of fossil fuels is for motor vehicles. What percentage of the fuel’s actual energy actually moves the vehicle? (average is 20%–30%) What happens to the rest of the fuel’s energy?
  • What energy transformations occur in the production of electricity in: hydroelectric systems, nuclear energy plants, photovoltaic systems, geothermal systems?
  • Why does the angle (tilt) of the Earth’s axis affect the seasons?
    (same amount of energy spread over a larger area, may also be reduced by passing greater distance through atmosphere)
  • How is heat generated by solar cookers? By microwave ovens? By nuclear power plants?
  • Unintended consequences
    •  the energy fields around and the radiation emitted by high-voltage power lines, microwave ovens, or nuclear reactors?
    • What are the effects on people and other living things who are exposed to household products made with endocrine-disrupting chemicals?
  • Physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” What did he mean? Do students agree?

Big Ideas

  • Many of the key concepts in physics can be used to help people understand global warming, climate change, energy systems, and sustainability
  • Study of global warming, climate change, and energy systems can help students understand physics concepts and develop a feel for the units of measure and their importance.

Additional Resources for Physics

  • Carbon Flows diagram 2014. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 2016. Sankey chart showing sources, carbon flows & processes, and destinations. []
  • Energy Flows diagram 2015. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 2016. Sankey chart showing sources, energy flows & processes, and destinations/uses.[]
  • Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math by Bill McKibben. Rolling Stone, July 2012. []
  • Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry, by Bill McKibben. The Nation, April 2016. []
  • Ice Sheets and Sea Level Rise [PDF]. NASA, 1999. (Curriculum document, good source for calculation methods, but volume of ice sheets may not be up to date.) []
  • Solar FAQs [PDF]. by Jeff Tsao, et al. Global-scale energy and GHG projections by U.S. Department of Energy, California Institute of Technology, and Argonne National Laboratory, 2005. Some estimates and cost assumptions are out of date, but this is still an important resource for understanding long-term energy and carbon/GHG projections. []

Additional resources on the Metric System, including free classroom resources.

Also see Resources That Apply to Many Subject Areas and Teacher-Recommended Readings for Students.