I’ve been collecting examples of different types of climate model that students can use in the classroom to explore different aspects of climate science and climate policy. In the long run, I’d like to use these to make the teaching of climate literacy much more hands-on and discovery-based. My goal is to foster more critical thinking, by having students analyze the kinds of questions people ask about climate, figure out how to put together good answers using a combination of existing data, data analysis tools, simple computational models, and more sophisticated simulations. And of course, learn how to critique the answers based on the uncertainties in the lines of evidence they have used.

Anyway, as a start, here’s a collection of runnable and not-so-runnable models, some of which I’ve used in the classroom:

Simple Energy Balance Models (for exploring the basic physics)

General Circulation Models (for studying earth system interactions)

  • EdGCM – an educational version of the NASA GISS general circulation model (well, an older version of it). EdGCM provides a simplified user interface for setting up model runs, but allows for some fairly sophisticated experiments. You typically need to let the model run overnight for a century-long simulation.
  • Portable University Model of the Atmosphere (PUMA) – a planet Simulator designed by folks at the University of Hamburg for use in the classroom to help train students interested in becoming climate scientists.

Integrated Assessment Models (for policy analysis)

  • C-Learn, a simple policy analysis tool from Climate Interactive. Allows you to specify emissions trajectories for three groups of nations, and explore the impact on global temperature. This is a simplified version of the C-ROADS model, which is used to analyze proposals during international climate treaty negotiations.
  • Java Climate Model (JVM) – a detailed desktop assessment model that offers detailed controls over different emissions scenarios and regional responses.

Systems Dynamics Models (to foster systems thinking)

  • Bathtub Dynamics and Climate Change from John Sterman at MIT. This simulation is intended to get students thinking about the relationship between emissions and concentrations, using the bathtub metaphor. It’s based on Sterman’s work on mental models of climate change.
  • The Climate Challenge: Our Choices, also from Sterman’s team at MIT. This one looks fancier, but gives you less control over the simulation – you can just pick one of three emissions paths: increasing, stabilized or reducing. On the other hand, it’s very effective at demonstrating the point about emissions vs. concentrations.
  • Carbon Cycle Model from Shodor, originally developed using Stella by folks at Cornell.
  • And while we’re on systems dynamics, I ought to mention toolkits for building your own systems dynamics models, such as Stella from ISEE Systems (here’s an example of it used to teach the global carbon cycle).

Other Related Models

  • A Kaya Identity Calculator, from David Archer at U Chicago. The Kaya identity is a way of expressing the interaction between the key drivers of carbon emissions: population growth, economic growth, energy efficiency, and the carbon intensity of our energy supply. Archer’s model allows you to play with these numbers.
  • An Orbital Forcing Calculator, also from David Archer. This allows you to calculate what the effect changes in the earth’s orbit and the wobble on its axis have on the solar energy that the earth receives, in any year in the past of future.

Useful readings on the hierarchy of climate models


  1. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, January 27, 2013 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  2. This is superb. You are putting this into the hands of anyone who wants to put forth the effort to understand. Great. Thank you so much.

  3. Here’s another thing from this January’s Joint Mathematics Meeting in San Diego:

    From the JMM — Conceptual Climate Models Short Course

    Would you like to learn about conceptual climate models and teach them to your differential equations and modeling classes? Check out the online materials from the MAA Conceptual Climate Models Short Course at the JMM. The course was developed by a team from the Mathematics and Climate Research Network (MCRN) led by postdoc Esther Widiasih. There are recorded lectures, PDF slides and a 37-page workbook of sample exercises.

  4. A simulated pingback from the “Distributed Arctic Sea Ice Model” thread on the Arctic Sea Ice Forum:


    Thanks very much Steve, for your various lists of excellent resources over recent years.

  5. Great, thanks! Another fantastic tool for classroom is Java Climate Model, by Ben Matthews: http://www.chooseclimate.org . This is a linearized version of AOCGCM, allowing backward calculations based on targets (eg, +2K limit on warming). This is a great tool, especially to show what is climate inertia.
    NB: i understand that EdGCM has gone commercial. Surprising from NASA and/or Columbia.

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