Ecology The Earth’s Climate
Justin Schoof
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0143


Climate science focuses on the behavior of the climate system, which consists of the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the lithosphere, and the cryosphere. Climate variability results from changes within and among these components as well as changes in their interactions. As such, the climate system exhibits substantive internal variability across scales of time and space. The climate system is also sensitive to changes in external forcing, which include long-term changes in the Earth’s orbital parameters as well as anthropogenic changes in atmospheric trace gas concentrations. Changes in both internal and external forcing can also be accompanied by complex feedbacks whereby initial forcings are either amplified (positive feedback) or suppressed (negative feedback) by subsequent climate system processes. Like all sciences, the tools of climate science are theory, observation, and modeling.

General Overviews

General overviews of the Earth’s climate are available at all readership levels. Introductory textbooks, such as Wallace and Hobbs 2006 and Aguado and Burt 2014 are used in many university classrooms and provide a good overview of both meteorology and climatology. These texts provide a basic foundation for understanding the Earth’s climate. Rohli and Vega 2013 focuses on climatology and its subfields and provides a clear distinction between meteorology and climatology. A broader perspective, which appropriately places contemporary and future climate in its historical context is provided by Ruddiman 2013. Given the rapid growth of both climate monitoring and climate modeling capabilities, climate assessments have become important mechanisms for establishing the state of the science. The key assessments have been those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), such as IPCC 2013, which provide regular updates on both large-scale and regional climate changes, as well as advancements in understanding of climate system processes in the context of past and future climate changes. National assessments, such as the United States National Climate Assessment (Melillo, et al. 2014) serve as a voice for the strong scientific consensus regarding the anthropogenic contribution to recent climate change and also address stakeholder interests in potential impacts of climate variability and change.

  • Aguado, E., and J. Burt. 2014. Understanding weather and climate. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    An introductory textbook covering fundamental aspects of planetary climate as well as introduction to contemporary climate science issues.

  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2013. Climate change 2013: The physical science basis: Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Edited by T. F. Stocker, D. Qin, G. -K. Plattner, et al. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The latest of the comprehensive physical science assessments from the IPCC, this volume reviews the state of knowledge related to all aspects of change within the climate system as well as projections of future climate based on state of the art modeling. Also see Future Climate.

  • Melillo, Jerry M., Terese Richmond, and Gary W. Yohe, eds. 2014. Climate change impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program.

    DOI: 10.7930/J0Z31WJ2

    The most recent national climate assessment for the United States is focused on current and future impacts of climate change in the United States on a regional basis.

  • Rohli, R. V, and A. J. Vega. 2013. Climatology. 3d ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning.

    An introductory text aimed at providing a comprehensive foundation of the Earth’s climate system. Much of the material focuses on traditional climatology topics such as regionalization, climate classification, the water balance, and spatial climate variability.

  • Ruddiman, W. F. 2013. Earth’s climate: Past and future. 3d ed. New York: Freeman.

    An overview of factors governing climate across the timescales comprising the entirety of Earth’s 4.6 billion year history. Ruddiman describes tectonic and orbital effects on climate as well as deglacial, millennial, and historical changes. This book places contemporary climate change within the context of natural climate variability. Also see Paleoclimate.

  • Wallace, J. M., and P. V. Hobbs. 2006. Atmospheric science: An introductory survey. 2d ed. New York: Academic.

    An introductory atmospheric science text that includes excellent sections on radiative transfer, climate dynamics, and thermodynamics.

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