EarthLabs for Educators > Climate and the Carbon Cycle > Lab Overviews

Lab Overviews

1. The Carbon Cycle: Living in a Carbon World
Students are briefly introduced to the essential role that carbon plays in life as we know it. Next they set up a 10-14 day controlled plant experiment on carbon storage in fertilized plants versus non-fertilized plants. This experimental model enables students to explore the function of nitrogen and phosphorus as limiting factors on carbon storage in plants. They explore the molecular basis of key carbon cycle processes (photosynthesis, respiration, decomposition, biosynthesis and combustion) both by building ball-and-stick models and by interacting with 3D Web-based JMOL molecules
Tools needed:Ball-and-stick molecular model kit, computer access with Flash. Java is required to access 3-D rotatable molecules.

2. The Carbon Cycle: What Goes Around Comes Around
Students focus initially on a sub-section of the Earth's natural carbon cycle as they take on a role of a carbon atom moving through the reservoirs of a forest carbon cycle. They learn that photosynthesis, respiration, and decomposition are key processes that move carbon from one forest reservoir to another. Following that, they use an interactive to explore how carbon moves throughout the global carbon cycle. Finally, students use system-thinking strategies to learn about the interconnectedness of the Earth system, feedback loops, and how changes in the carbon cycle lead to other changes in the system.
Tools needed: Computer Access with Flash capability

3. Carbon in the Atmopshere: My Life as a Greenhouse Gas
Students use an animation, charts and a short video to learn the basics of greenhouse chemistry, including what carbon compounds exist in the atmosphere and their relationship to the greenhouse effect. Next, they analyze historical and current carbon dioxide data beginning with the the iconic Keeling Curve atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements taken at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Students then compare historical ice core carbon dioxide and temperature data to establish the relationship between global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Finally, students view ways the U.S. Military is using technology to reduce their carbon footprint, and then identify ways they can reduce their own carbon footprint.
Tools needed: Computer access with Flash capability.

4. Forests: Changes in the Land
Students learn about how forests can be carbon sinks or carbon sources by investigating the impact of of deforestation and fires on carbon emissions.
Next, they investigate the interconnectedness of climate change, forest ecology, wildfires and carbon feedbacks in a case study on the Boreal Forest, which extends across the northern regions of North America, Europe, and Asia south of the tundra. They begin by listening to a researcher describe the changes that warming is bringing to the Boreal Forest i.e. The warmer, drier weather leads to more intensive fires in this region of conifers. As the faster-growing deciduous trees replace the conifers, the most significant changes may be ones that are not even visible.
Tools needed: computer access with Flash capability

5. Soil and the Carbon Cycle

Students explore the relationship between soil and the carbon cycle by focusing first on the role of microbes in decomposition and soil respiration. Next, students design an experiment to determine how an environmental variable, such as temperature, affects the rate of soil respiration. Finally, students study soil respiration dynamics in permafrost - permanently frozen soil with the potential to further unbalance the carbon cycle if it thaws.

6. Oceans: Carbon Sink or Source?
How does carbon get into the ocean, and what are the physical and biological processes that move it through the ocean once it is there? Students zoom in on another key portion of the carbon cycle - the ocean's biological pump - and investigate the role of phytoplankton in removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
Tools needed: computer access with Flash

7. Ocean Acidification- Too Much of a Good Thing?
Students explore what changes are resulting from the surprisingly large increase in the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide that is dissolving and accumulating in the world's oceans. The most worrisome result may be the changing pH level: the ocean is becoming more acidic. The increased carbonic acid that results from the reaction of water with carbon dioxide is disrupting the shell-building ability of marine organisms such as oysters, crabs, coral and single-cell coccolithophores. They use the Virtual Urchin lab, developed by Stanford University, to investigate the effects of a more acidic ocean pH on the ability of sea urchins to form their carbonate internal skeletons.
Tools needed: computer access with Flash

8. Balancing the Carbon Cycle: Finding Solutions with Design and Technology
Can technology solve the problem of an unbalanced carbon cycle? Students research and report on the pros and cons of current and imagined technological strategies to mitigate the effect of a amplified greenhouse effect.
Tools needed: Internet access for a research project

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