Working with Climate Change Data
Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
How the activity is situated in the course
Content/concepts goals for this activity
Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Other skills goals for this activity
Description of the activity/assignment
Thermometers similar to modern mercury instruments were invented in the 1600s, and people began to measure air temperatures almost immediately. The longest continuous record of average monthly temperatures extends from 1659 to the present for an area in central England.
A few other places hold intermittent records almost as old, but more widespread and regular temperature measurements did not become common until the 1880s. A temperature record spanning 100-300 years may seem like a large data set, although it is only a small fraction of Earth's history. The instrumental record is, however, long enough to reveal a trend, which has been called by various names: climate change, global warming, climate chaos, or "global weirding."
Student materials for this exercise include a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet with data on historical sunspot cycles, the instrumental temperature record, and carbon dioxide concentrations through time. A separate file holds student instructions and questions. The exercise is divided into three parts.
Part I introduces the concepts of energy from the Sun and global temperature anomalies. Students create and format a chart of temperature anomalies and compare it with both a graph of temperature values and a graph of sunspot cycles. This section also illustrates how to make a chart on one worksheet using data on another worksheet.
In Part II, students work with greenhouse gas data. After a quick look at the history of climate science, students study CO2 concentrations obtained from ice cores and, more recently, direct measurements. They calculate rates of change, compare CO2 and methane, and try to relate temperature changes to changes in insolation, sunspot activity, and CO2.
Part III involves visiting the NASA Climate Time Machine. This website contains four sets of images illustrating historical sea ice, temperature and CO2 changes and projections of future sea level changes. After answering several questions about the images, students write a short essay assessing the evidence for anthropogenic climate change.
Determining whether students have met the goals
Teaching materials and tips
- Activity Description/Assignment: Student Instructions for Climate Change Activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 2.3MB Jun17 19)
- Instructors Notes: Lecture Slides for Climate Change Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 2.9MB Jun17 19)
- Student Workbook for Climate Change Activity (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 696kB Jun17 19)
- Timeline for Climate Change Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 157kB Jun17 19)
The NASA Climate Time Machine, 2018: Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019
Data sources:Global Mean Estimates based on Land and Ocean Data, 2019, National Aeronautics and Space Administration: Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019. https://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs_v3/
Etheridge, D.M., L.P. Steele, R.J. Francey, and R.L. Langenfelds, 1998, Atmospheric methane between 1000 A.D. and present: evidence of anthropogenic emissions and climatic variability: Journal of Geophysical Research, 103, 15979-15996. Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019
CO2 expressed as a mole fraction in dry air, 2019, National Oceanographc and Atmospheric Administration. Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019. ftp://aftp.cmdl.noaa.gov/products/trends/co2/co2_annmean_mlo.txt
Berger ,A., and M.F. Loutre, 1991, Insolation values for the climate of the last 10 million years, Quaternary Sciences Review, V. 10 N. 4, pp. 297-317. Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019
Sunspot Index and Long-term Solar Observations, 2019, SDC-SILSO, Royal Observatory of Belgium, Brussels. Online resource – Accessed 17 June 2019