Initial Publication Date: December 14, 2012

Climate and the Biosphere: Unit Overview

The lab activities in this module were developed by Betsy Youngman of TERC for the EarthLabs project.

The Workshop Leader Resources were developed by Nick Haddad of TERC, Project Director of the EarthLabs project.

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Why teach about climate and the biosphere?

Climate shapes the natural environment in which we live. Imagine the glossy photographs that you see in a travel magazinehot sunny beaches, cool moist jungles, icy alpine slopes; the flora and fauna in each of these places is shaped by the local climate. Climate also has a significant influence on the way in which we lead our lives, from the kinds of homes we build, to the clothing we buy; from the activities we pursue, to the economy of our society. Climate results from a highly complex set of interactions between the Sun and multiple components of the Earth system, interactions that we can't always see and that many poorly understand. All across the planet scientists have collected enough data to establish without a doubt that the climate of a given location and, in fact, the climate of the planet also varies across time. Now with significant evidence that humans can alter components of the Earth system that shape climate, it is essential that everyone have a deeper understanding of weather, climate, the difference between the two, and the ways in which Earth's natural systems interact to form our weather and our climate.

Why use this set of lessons?

The Labs presented in this unit on climate and weather include student readings, hands-on investigations, videos, animations, data analysis, and models that students explore to help them understand the ways in which energy from the Sun interacts with Earth's systems at global, regional, and local scales to give Earth its varied climates. Another key idea of the module is the multiple time scales at which climate operates, from predicable seasonal and annual cycles to cycles that last for tens of thousands of years and cause dramatic changes to life on Earth via glaciations, changes in sea level, and other long-term effects.

Key Questions

Key questions addressed by this unit include:

  • What is Earth's radiation balance, and what role does it play in climate?
  • How do the major atmospheric and ocean circulation patterns influence climate?
  • What are Earth's biomes; how do they vary with location, and how do they relate to climate?
  • How does climate change over short, medium, and long time spans?
  • How is life affected by changes in the Earth's climate?
  • How do scientists know that the climate has changed in the past and how it may change in the future?

Before starting this unit

Read the Lab Overviews section, which identifies all of the materials you'll need to gather and provides a quick scope and sequence of the unit. If you have not already done so, please read the Climate Series Introduction where you will find additional information about climate science as well as suggestions for helping your students get the most out of their engagement with the module. Install and practice using new software and digital tools; acquire needed lab materials; and print out student handouts.


The resources below provide important general background information relevant to this module and to the entire set of Climate EarthLabs modules. More specific materials are listed in the teacher pages.

Workshop Leader Resources

Below are links to a set of resources which you may use if you wish to lead a one-day workshop that introduces this unit to other teachers. The resources are suggestions, and you are free to modify them and use them as you wish.

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