ERTH 303: Weather and Climate

Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University

Glacier Peak across a marine cloud layer, WA

Marine cloud layer shrouds Glacier Peak, Washington

Course Overview

Instructor Information

Dave McWethy, Ph.D.

Office: Traphagen Hall 218
Office Hours:  Wed. 10 am - 12 pm, Thursday 1-3 pm.
E-mail:  dmcwethy[at]
Phone Number:  994-6915

Course Description

    Few subjects within Earth Sciences are as far reaching as the study of weather (meteorology) and climate (climatology). We plan our days based on the current weather, plant food supplies based on seasonal forecasts, and develop economies based on regional climate. Weather and climate also explain major biogeographic patterns and influence physical processes shaping Earth. With unprecedented climate changes likely inevitable in our lifetimes, the study of weather and climate has also taken on added importance in recent decades.

    In this course we will build a physical understanding of how Earth systems interact to create the weather we see on a daily basis and the climatic patterns that emerge at larger spatial and temporal scales. The last 1/3 of the course focuses on understanding the current predictions for global and regional climate change based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth assessment.


By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  1. Analyze, describe, and plot the major atmospheric processes controlling weather and climate, including radiation budgets, pressure gradients, frontal movement, and air masses.
  2. Make use of on-line weather and climate resources to assist in planning  daily activities.
  3. Describe the methods used to reconstruct past climates and predict future climates.
  4. Develop and express an informed opinion on the causes, likelihood, and consequences of human-caused global climate change.  


The course consists of weekly lectures and class activities focused on the reading for that day. You need to be comfortable with  basic math (i.e. algebra) and statistics (distributions and probabilities) for the homework assignments and in-class exercises, and you will need access to the Internet throughout the semester.

Course Requirements


ESCI 112 - Introduction to Physical Geography. GEOG 302 builds upon the introductory understanding of weather and climate gained from ESCI 112 but we will review some  of the more important concepts throughout the semester. College algebra (e.g. MATH 105) and an introductory statistics (e.g. STAT 216, 217) course  will also be helpful for this class.

Required Materials

Texts (available at the MSU bookstore)
Aguado, E., and Burt, J. E. (2007) Understanding Weather and Climate, Forth Edition, Prentice Hall.         USED at MSU Bookstore- $72.80

Mann, M. E. and Kump, L. R. (2008) Dire Predictions, Understanding Global Warming: The illustrated guide to the finding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.                     NEW at MSU Bookstore - $21.95

Computer Access
You will need a reliable Internet connection to keep up to date with course materials (though the class web site) and to successfully complete class assignments.

Attendance and Participation

Attendance is required and comprises a substantial percentage of your grade (15%), but merely showing up will not suffice for success in the course. You are expected to take class notes and contribute to class discussions. 


All assignments should be handed in via e-mail to the instructor, unless otherwise noted.

Weekly Readings
The textbook readings are the primary source of information for this course. Class periods will be spend reviewing, discussing, and illustrating concepts presented in the text, thus it is essential that you read the assigned materials before class meets on the assigned date

Weather Journals and Weather Discussion

Throughout the term, each student is responsible for keeping a weather journal for two of the 15 weeks the class meets. Starting the third week of class, you are responsible for downloading current weather observations and the weather forecast for three days for a given U.S. location or region (can be the entire US) and then following up with actual weather observations for those three days. For each week's journal entry, you should (1) summarize the original observations and forecast you downloaded; (2) compare observations of several weather metrics (e.g. temperature, dew point, winds, precipitation) to realized values; (3) comment on the accuracy of the original forecast; and (4) include some comparison between the week's weather and the location's or region's climatology: e.g. were any records broken, how (un)usual was the week's weather? The weather journal should be no longer than two (1.5 line-spaced) pages of text (12-pt, Times New Roman font), and you should include graphics and/or tables of your data (from  class-sanctioned websites) to support your statements (length criterion does not include graphics). A grading rubric for Weather Journals is found here.  

Each student will also be responsible for presenting her/his weather journal to the class (1 week section) at some point during the semester. Sign up for presentation will take place during the second week of classes. 

Quizzes and Exams 


You should be prepared for a short quiz during all weeks that do not have  exams, either on Tuesday or Thursday. These will consist of multiple choice and short answer questions and should not take more than 15 minutes. These may be part of an in-class exercise.  


There will be two in-class exams covering course materials, readings, and lectures. The final exam is cumulative. Each exam will consist of a mixture of multiple choice, true/false, and/or short answer questions. To do well on the exams: (1) do the assigned readings, (2) come to class, (3) pay attention and take notes, (4) ask questions, (5) review your notes and the text. After this, you should be able to answer most of the questions at the end of each chapter in the text book.

Dates & Locations

In-class Exam 1: Thursday, October 8th
In-class Exam 2: Thursday, November 19th 
Final Exam: TBA Traphagen 204

Course Policies & Grading

Course Policies

(1) In-class expectations: Please respect your fellow student's learning experience. Do not talk amongst yourselves during class (but feel free to raise you hand to ask a question), arrive on time and do not leave class early, and please turn off all electronic devices unless they are being used for note taking.

(2) Absences
will not be excused unless you have contacted me 24 hours or more in advance of the class. This includes missing an exam: there are no make up exams.

(3) Assignment due dates are firm. Late assignments will be penalized by 5% per 24-hour period. For example, a perfect assignment handed in 3 days late would receive 85% of full credit. As with attendance, late assignments will be penalized unless you have made arrangements with me, at least 48-hours prior to the due date.

(4) Out of class inquiries: Coming to office hours is the best way to get questions answered, but I will make ever effort to answer questions posed over e-mail within two weekdays of receipt. In order to do this, you must:
   (a)  include ERTH 303 in the subject line
   (b)  sign your message with your full name  

(5) Academic Dishonesty of any form is unacceptable and will be taken serious by the instructor and Montana State University. This includes plagiarism, when you copy materials for other sources without citing the source or copy someone else's work, and cheating, copying material from other students during tests or quizzes. In both cases, you will fail the assignment/exam and the information will be passed on to the Dean of Students.For more information see:

(6) Students with disabilities are encouraged to contact the instruction and Disabled Student Services ( to work out any accommodations necessary to make this course a success.  


Your final grade will be based on the following weights for each category:
  • Attendance and Participation - 15%
  • Quizzes (lowest quiz dropped) - 10%
  • Assignments - 10%
  • Exam 1 - 20% 
  • Exam 2 - 20%
  • Final Exam - 25%
Break points between number grades and percentages will be based on the following:
Grade Percentage Required
F below 60

Calendar -  continually updated

Date Topics Readings Assignments
Sep. 1
Course Introduction and Weather Basics 
Chapter 1  Agreement of Understanding

Assignment #1
Sep. 3
(1) Composition and Structure of the Atmosphere
Chapter 1 Assignment #1 DUE

OPTIONAL:  Online tutorial for reading weather maps; see also Chapter 13 and associated CD ROM guide

Weather Journal Instructions
Sep. 8
(2) Solar Radiation and the Seasons
Chapter 2
Sep. 10
(2) Cont.
(3) Energy Balance and Temperature
 no lecture notes- see example journal
Chapter 2-3 Example Weather Journal
Sep. 15
(3) Cont.
Chapter 3 Start Weather Journals
Sep. 17
(3) Cont.
Chapter 3
Sep. 22
Chapters 3-4
Atmospheric Pressure and Winds
Chapter 3-4
Sep. 24

(4) Atmospheric Pressure and Winds
Chapter 4
Sep. 29
(4) Cont.
(5) Atmospheric Moisture
Chapter 5 Submit Weather Journal, 1st entry: DUE
Oct 1
(5) Cont.

Chapter 5
Oct. 6
(5) Cont.
 last lecture for exam

Finish Capter 5

Oct. 8


Study for Exam
Oct. 13
Exam 1: Aguado and Burt Chapters 1-5

Oct. 15
(6) Cloud Development and Forms

Chapter 6
Oct. 20
Guest Lecture
Mike Heard-

 (7) Precipitation Processes

Chapter 7-8
Oct. 22
Oct. 27
(7) Cloud Development and Forms
Chapter 7

Oct. 29
(8) Atmospheric Circulation and Pressure Distributions
Chapter 8
Nov. 3
(8) Atmospheric Circulation and Pressure Distributions
Chapter 8

Class Tuesday

Nov. 5

Nov. 10

(8) Atmospheric Circulation and Pressure Distributions

Chapter 8-9 Link to Assignment #2
Nov. 12

(10) Midlatitude Cyclones

Chapter 10
Nov. 17
(10) Midlatitude Cyclones
Chapter 10 Assignment #2: (El Nino/La Nina) DUE at the beginning of class
*turn in only the answer sheet
Nov. 19
(11) Lightning, Thunder, and Tornadoes
Chapter 11
Nov. 24
Exam 2 - Aguado and Burt Chapters 6-11

Nov. 26
Thanksgiving - NO CLASS
Dec. 1
 Climate Changes, Past and Future

Mann and Kump, Introduction and Part 1 

Link to Assignment #3
DUE: Tuesday, Dec. 8th in class
Dec. 3
Climate Change Projections
Mann and Kump, Introduction and Part 1, Part 2
Dec. 8
Climate Change Projections - cont.
Impacts of Climate Change
Part 2-3 Assignment #3
DUE: at beginning of class
Dec. 10
Climate Change Projections - cont.
Impacts of Climate Change
Part 2-3
Dec. 18
2:00 pm
Traphagen 204
Aguado and Burt Chapters 1-11
 Mann and Kump Parts Intro and 1-2