EarthLabs > Climate and the Carbon Cycle: Unit Overview > Lab 3. Carbon and the Atmosphere: My Life as a Greenhouse Gas

Carbon and the Atmosphere: My Life as a Greenhouse Gas


In the atmosphere, carbon exists primarily in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane gas (CH4). The atmosphere is a large reservoir for carbon dioxide, and because it interfaces with the biosphere, the geosphere, and the hydrosphere, the atmosphere behaves like a Grand Central Station, with carbon dioxide moving into and out of the atmosphere through multiple natural exchange points such as plants, animals, soils, and oceans. Over Earth's history, slow carbon cycles and fast carbon cycles have worked in tandem to stabilize the carbon cycle. Today, however, our use of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas, combined with deforestation, are disrupting the carbon cycle by increasing the concentration in the atmosphere. And, as with any complex system, a disruption in one part of the system will often cause a disruption in other parts of the system.

Since we first started burning large amounts of fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 39%. Some of this extra carbon dioxide has been absorbed by oceans, soils, and trees, but the rest will stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years. This is significant for our climate because carbon dioxide is the most important gas for controlling Earth's atmospheric temperature. Carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gasessuch as methane, water vapor, and nitrous oxidecontrol Earth's temperature through the greenhouse effect. Without a greenhouse effect, the temperature of Earth would be much colder than it is now.

In this Lab, you will investigate the following essential questions:

In Part A: You will use an animation, charts, and a short video to learn the basics of greenhouse gas chemistry, including what carbon compounds exist in the atmosphere and their relationship to the greenhouse effect.

In Part B: You will use a graph and videos on historical ice core carbon dioxide (CO2) data in order to investigate the relationship between ices ages, interglacial periods and changes in CO2 levels. You will then examine more current CO2and temperature data to reveal the relationship between current trends in global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. You will use CarbonTracker, developed by NOAA, to investigate and compare atmospheric CO2 time series data sampled from different parts of the world.

In Part C: You will use a carbon footprint calculator developed by The Nature Conservancy. You will input family household data such as family's energy usage and then compare your carbon footprint with each others and with the world.

By the end of this investigation, you should be able to:

Keeping Track of What You Learn

Throughout these labs, you will find two kinds of questions.

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