EarthLabs > Climate Detectives

Climate Detectives: Unit Overview


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


Why study Earth's climate history?

Earth's climate has changed, sometimes dramatically, in the past. If you had lived on the island of Manhattan about 20,000 years ago, you would have found yourself living during an ice age. You would see nothing but an expanse of ice as you pitch your tent on a 4,000-foot thick slab of ice that covers the island and extends for miles in all directions. But what does it matter? Why is it important to understand Earth's climate history?

Investigating the causes of climate change.

The paleoclimate (the climate of some former period of geologic time) record also allows us to examine the causes of past climate change. Looking into Earth's climate history can help scientists determine how much of the 20th century warming may be explained by natural causes, such as solar variability, and how much may be explained by human influences.

Understanding the influence of humans on the climate system.

The paleoclimatic record also allows us to examine the causes of past climate change. Looking into Earth's climate history can help scientists determine how much of the 20th century warming may be explained by natural causes, such as solar variability or changes in Earth's orbit, and how much may be explained by human influences.

Improving the ability of climate models to simulate future climate change.

Most state of the art climate prediction is accomplished using large sophisticated computer models of the climate system. A great deal of research has been focused on ensuring that these models can simulate most aspects of the modern, present-day, climate. It is also important to know how these same models simulate climate change. This can be accomplished by comparing simulations of past climate change with observations from paleoclimatic records. So in a real sense, paleoclimatology helps us improve the ability of computer models predict what future changes in climate we might expect.


The study of paleoclimate provides vital information about past, present, and future climate change.

What will I learn?

In this unit, you will analyze sediment cores and search for clues about Earth's past climate history. You will travel along with a group of scientists who extracted sediment cores from several location along the south coast of Alaska in the summer of 2013. You will conduct hands-on lab activities, watch videos, analyze the actual data from the expedition, consult maps and graphs, explore online interactives, and discuss ideas with your teacher and classmates, all of which will help you to gather evidence to determine when major climate events occurred in the past, and how these events connect with changes in climate today, and in the future.

Key Questions addressed by this unit include:


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