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Carbon Cycle

NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory

This activity from NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory introduces students to the current scientific understanding of the greenhouse effect and the carbon cycle. The activity leads them through several interactive tasks investigating recent trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Students analyze scientific data and use scientific reasoning to determine the causes responsible for these recent trends. By studying carbon cycle science in a visual and interactive manner, the activity provides students with a conceptual framework with which to address the challenges of a changing climate.

Activity takes about four 45-minute class periods or one 3-hour lab period.

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Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Greenhouse effect
About Teaching Principle 2
Other materials addressing 2c
Biogeochemical cycles of greenhouse gases / Carbon cycle
About Teaching Principle 2
Other materials addressing 2d

Energy Literacy

Environmental quality is impacted by energy choices.
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7.3 Environmental quality.
Humans transfer and transform energy from the environment into forms useful for human endeavors.
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4.1 Humans transfer and transform energy.
Movement of matter between reservoirs is driven by Earth's internal and external sources of energy.
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2.5 Energy moves between reservoirs.
Greenhouse gases affect energy flow through the Earth system.
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2.6 Greenhouse gases affect energy flow.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:B) Changes in matter
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B) Changes in matter.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:C) Energy
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C) Energy.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.2 The Living Environment:D) Flow of matter and energy
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D) Flow of matter and energy.

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Make a worksheet with the questions posed after each step of the task to force students to write their answers. Some students may need a similar worksheet for the Basics section.
  • Educators may want learners to begin with an exploration of the visualization http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/carbontracker/ to look for trends before they launch into the reading.
  • Different locations can be assigned to different groups to reduce the repetitiveness of the activity as described.
  • Video on "What's in the Air" about NOAA’s Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases group can help provide background on the program: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/education/intheair.html

About the Science

  • A very thorough look at actual data to explore the carbon cycle and trends in CO2 concentration at different sites.
  • Comment from expert scientist: The "Basics of the Carbon Cycle and the Greenhouse Effect" web page consists completely of facts introducing the reader to the carbon cycle and the main sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The activity itself uses primary data measured at various sites around the world and draws from the databases that I will be using myself in a couple of weeks for my own research. I think that this makes this activity very powerful as students get to work directly with the data. It also makes students compare data from various locations and makes them realize that there are seasonal cycles as well as long term trends and use the knowledge they learned from the basics page to understand the observations.

About the Pedagogy

  • More structure may be necessary for some students when reading the Basics of Climate Science.
  • There is no space or opportunity to write the answers to the questions posed during the activity.
  • Tasks are clear and easy for students to follow; screen shots are helpful.
  • A long reading kicks off this activity but it is well done.
  • The visualization is strong and fairly ease to use. The directions given to learners are clear and should be easy to follow.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Easy for students to follow directions to find and analyze data.

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