Interpreting Recent Carbon Dioxide Data

This activity was developed for the Teaching About Earth's Climate Using Data and Numerical Models workshop, held in October 2011.
Elizabeth Gordon


Fitchburg State University

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This activity engages students in viewing and downloading web-accessed data sets to examine latitudinal trends in CO2 over (recent) time and to interpret a time series of CO2 data from a selected location.

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This activity is being developed for a sophomore level Climatology course, consisting primarily of Earth Science majors and minors, with some Biology majors. All students will have taken either an introductory Earth Science course or Meteorology as a prerequisite.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students will have examined paleoclimate records to understand natural climate forcings, been introduced to different feedbacks in the climate system, and reviewed the difference between the natural greenhouse effect and global warming. Students will also have experience graphing with Excel, so this activity will act as an assessment of this skill.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity will be completed at the beginning of our unit on future climate change, about two-thirds of the way through the course.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Describe global and hemispheric trends in CO2;
  • Compare current CO2 levels with those recorded in ice cores; 
  • Reflect on natural and human factors that will influence future temperature and CO2 levels.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Develop a hypothesis, and formulate ideas for testing their hypothesis (e.g., identifying additional data that would address hypothesis);
  • Synthesize prior knowledge about the climate system to explain real climate data.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Explore available data from trustworthy web-based sources;
  • Make and interpret graphs;
  • Work in groups;
  • Use basic quantitative skills (calculate a rate and use the rate to project future concentration).

Description of the activity/assignment

Using web-accessed climate data, students will examine the latitudinal distribution of CO2 and explain how (and why) that has changed over (recent) time. They will then work in groups of two or three to download, graph, and interpret carbon dioxide concentration data from one individual location (different groups will be assigned a different site). Each student will complete a series of questions to ensure their understanding of the concepts outlined above.

Determining whether students have met the goals

sStudents will submit their answers to the questions that go along with the activity, which includes an essay that requires them to reflect on prior knowledge in this new context. They will also be asked test question(s) to assess their understanding of current and future temperature and CO2 trends.

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