EarthLabs for Educators > Carbon

Climate and the Carbon Cycle: Unit Overview

NOTE TO USERS: This module is still under development. Content has not yet been finalized for classroom use.

Why Teach About Carbon and the Earth System?

Carbon, like water, is essential to life as we know it on Earth. It is a component of our DNA and of the foods we eat, and its presence in the atmosphere (in the form of carbon dioxide, a "greenhouse gas") helps keep our planet warm enough to be habitable. Like water, carbon continuously cycles through the major components of the Earth system—the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the biosphere, and the solid parts of Earth (geosphere)—driven by processes that occur at incredibly different time scales, from fractions of a second (photosynthesis) to millions of years (formation of fossil fuels).

As significant a role as the carbon cycle plays in our lives, it is poorly understood; whether it's the way in which carbon dioxide supports the growth of plants or functions as Earth's thermostat, misconceptions abound. This module is designed to help students strengthen their understanding of the carbon cycle and carbon's essential role in our lives. Because carbon is connected to everything that matters to us –our bodies, our ecosystems, our climate, and the health of our planet – it makes sense for all of us to better understand this essentially important element and the ways in which it cycles through the Earth system.

Why use this set of lessons?

This unit will introduce students to the basics of the carbon cycle: where carbon is stored in the Earth's system (reservoirs) and by what processes it is moved from one reservoir to another. Using case studies, NASA visualizations, current research, and interactive visualizations on the Web, students will explore how living things on land and in our oceans regulate the carbon cycle. Because carbon and climate are tightly coupled, students will study the effect of altering the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere.

Key questions addressed by this unit include:

Before starting this unit

  1. Read the Lab Overviews section, which identifies all of the materials you'll need to gather and provides a quick scope and sequence of the unit.


The resources below provide important background information relevant to this module and to the entire set of Climate EarthLabs modules.

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