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. They will learn how the carbon cycle, climate and the abiotic and biotic components of the environment influence each other. They will learn where carbon is stored in the Earth's system (reservoirs) and by what processes it moves from one reservoir to another. Using case studies, NASA visualizations, current research, and interactives, students will explore how living things on land, in soils, and in our oceans regulate the carbon cycle. Students will analyze the effect of carbon dioxide on the Earth's thermostat and our climate. Finally, they will seek possible solutions to a warming climate.
Key questions addressed by this unit include:
- How do the carbon cycle, climate and the environment influence each other?
- How does carbon move through the four spheres of the Earth System, in what forms and at what time and spatial scales?
- How does the carbon cycle regulate the temperature of Earth's atmosphere via the greenhouse effect?
- Will atmospheric carbon dioxide continue to rise and what can we do about it?
Before starting this unit
- 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.
- NSTA Boston 2014 PowerPoint Presentation "Climate and the Carbon Cycle" (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 22.9MB Apr9 14)
- Earth System: The Basics (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 151kB Jun6 12)
- Realities VS Misconceptions About the Science of Climate Change (Acrobat (PDF) 429kB Jun6 12) This document was made available by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (http://www.c2es.org/)
- Introduction to the Basic Drivers of Climate
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