Global Climate Change

This activity was developed for the Teaching About Earth's Climate Using Data and Numerical Models workshop, held in October 2011.
Mark Horrell
Northwest Florida State College
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This is a partially developed activity description. It is included in the collection because it contains ideas useful for teaching even though it is incomplete.


Students examine pre-historical to present atmospheric CO2 levels from published sources and determine pre-industrial, present, and possibly future levels. Then they use an Energy Balance Model (EBM) to study latitudinal changes in temperature as CO2 changes. They should discover that polar areas are most influenced, but also that tropical temperatures approach threshold levels when future CO2 values are used. They then write a report about their findings. I no longer use this model or activity, but it is one that I would like to revive. One of the major strengths of this activity is that students work with real data and models.

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This was taught at high school level, but for gifted students with strong science backgrounds. It was an advanced course in Earth physics. It would be suitable for a college-level, introductory course on climate and climate change.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students must be able to graph data in Excel and interpret their graphs. The student should be mathematically capable of performing simple energy balance calculations (E=sigmaT^4. for example).

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity has been used to initiate a discovery-based or problem-based unit.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The project was an attempt to introduce students to the role of greenhouse gases, as well as familiarize them with the concept of global-scale and latitudinal energy balance. Once the model was familiar to them, they could later address poleward heat transport, cloud cover variation, and other factors influencing climate.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students learned the value of using actual scientific data and models for investigating scientific issues. They also learned the limits of this type of energy balance model (EBM) and the limits of models in general. Students often want the "right" answer but find that science often must deal with messy problems that require approximations and parametrized solutions that represent our best guesses. Models, after all, are just models, but better models (like Global Climate Models, or GCMs) allow us to explore deeper and, hopefully, with better accuracy.

Other skills goals for this activity

This project involved group work and discussions, scientific writing, and using a spreadsheet.

Description of the activity/assignment

Students use an Energy Balance Model (EBM) to examine how changes in global atmospheric CO2 levels may change global and latitudinal temperatures. Their study uses published data from ice cores and more recent flask measurements to constrain their model.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students are able to interpret past and current CO2 levels from a range of sources for input into the model. Then, they must create a set of graphs of latitudinal temperature profiles for each scenario that they test. From this, I look to see that they recognize that polar temperatures rise much more than tropical and mid-latitude temperatures. At this point, the models will need to be modified as sea ice diminishes (this is a static model) and the polar warming trend will be even more pronounced. This, then, leads to the concept of feedback mechanisms in models.

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Supporting references/URLs

  • The activity was online for many years. I no longer teach at this school and the activity is no longer online. The data sets for CO2 come from the CDIAC at Oak Ridge.
  • While this EBM is no longer available online, this activity could be adapted to one of the many simple models already online - some of which are referenced on this resource page.