Lab 4: Climate Patterns and Life (Biomes)

The lab activity described here was created by Betsy Youngman of TERC for the EarthLabs project.

Summary and Learning Objectives

Students learn about Earth's biomes and the intimate connection between those biomes and the climates that help to define them. They examine maps and diagrams of biomes and climate patterns and consider the threats that changing climatic patterns present to existing biomes.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • compare climate patterns from a variety of regions of the globe and explain how climate is defined by precipitation and temperature; and
  • give examples of the relationship between climate and the living environment (the biome).
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Overview and Teaching Materials

Detailed overview of what students will do in each lab activity, how long it will take, and what materials are required to complete the lab.

In Part A: Students are introduced to the concept of the biome and the relationship between climate and biome. They examine maps that show the distribution of the various biomes across the planet. They choose one biome to research and become a biome expert for the class. This lab can be adapted and completed offline.
Time required: 100 minutes, including time to research a biome.

In Part B: Students download a Google Earth (KMZ) file which depicts Earth's major biomes. They open the file in Google Earth and view links to images and climographs of 16 different climatic regions. This allows them to explore the relationship between biomes, climate, and topography. This lab requires a live Internet connection and Google Earth. Alternately, this lab can be adapted and completed offline.
Time required: 50 minutes

Tools needed: Internet browser, Google Earth. Optional: PowerPoint, globes, and world maps.

Time required: 150-180 minutes, or 3-4 class periods are needed to complete these labs. Time will vary depending on student skills with Google Earth and depth of research. (Part A can be done as homework.)

Printable Materials

Download and print files needed for each lab activity, including images, data tables, and Stop and Think questions.
To download one of the PDF or Word files below, right-click (control-click on a Mac) the link and choose "Save File As" or "Save Link As."
  • Stop and Think Questions (Word (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 198kB Aug7 18) and PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 262kB Dec7 12))
  • Suggested Answers

    This file is only accessible to verified educators. If you would like access to this file, please enter your email address below. If you are new to the site, you will be asked to complete a short request form. If you have already been verified by the EarthLabs project, you will be taken directly to the file download page.

    to Stop and Think Questions
Lab 4A
  • Biomes worksheet (Acrobat (PDF) 35kB Oct2 11)can be used to record information about biome reports.
Lab 4B
  • Climate and Biomes PPT 2 (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 22.6MB Apr27 12)This student version can be used as an alternative or supplement to the Google Earth project.

Teaching Notes and Tips

General recommendations for classroom implementation as well as guidelines and facilitation tips for leading class discussions.
General Recommendations:
In Part A: In addition to the list of biomes provided in the lab, there are lists on websites that are accessible from the Lab, and you'll notice that there is more than one convention for identifying Earth's biomes. The important point is not so much any particular list but the concept that each plant and animal (aside from humans) is supported by and adapted to a particular climate and physical environment. Take time to emphasize that as the climate changes so too will the plant and animal community (i.e., the whole ecosystem). Ask students to ponder how quickly they think an ecosystem can evolve in response to climate change; see the recent article Climate Change May Bring Big Ecosystem Changes for more on this topic.

As a wrap-up activity to this lab, teachers may want to give students copies of the Whittaker graphic and play a game of "Name that biome" or "Biome Bingo" (in small groups or pairs). To play the game, give the temperature and precipitation and have students match these conditions to the correct biome on the Whittaker graphic. Teachers can make up a set of conditions ahead of time by writing the temperature and precipitation on note cards or scraps of paper. These cards can be pulled from a bowl or stack in a game-like fashion. Students can also match the conditions to images of biomes, see the Additional Resources section below for a set of images to use.

As a bridge to the upcoming labs, conclude this lab with a discussion of potential changes to ecosystems as a result of climate change. See discussion guidelines below.
Purpose of the discussion: In this lab students investigated to the relationship between weather, climate and the biosphere. A discussion will help to expand upon this understanding, and to prompt in-depth consideration of the potential disruption to biomes due to climate changes.

Facilitation Tips: Write the primary discussion question on the board, assign biomes to each group of 3-5 students, then give the students time to work on ideas. If you suspect that they may have difficulty walk them through how to "move" the biomes around in their minds. It may help to give students a printed copy of the diagram to work with and draw on. It may help to tell students that there is no one right answer to this question; in fact scientists are actively investigating changes to biome distribution.

Primary discussion question: Maps and graphics help to organize biome and climate characteristics, allowing us to see patterns in data. Using the Whittaker diagram, above, choose one biome and predict what you think would happen if:
  • Average temperature increased 5˚ C
  • Average precipitation decreased, or increased, 25 cm per year
Once you have considered the changes, share your thoughts and ideas with your class.

Wrap Up: In the next lesson, students will put the biomes on a Google Earth globe and compare their general locations with observed temperature and precipitation data. As they are viewing the globe, make sure that they keep in mind the ideas they generated in this discussion.

In Part B: If you do not have much experience with installing, navigating, and adding data to Google Earth, the lab will provide you with the information you need in order to practice and be prepared to support your students. You may also want to investigate a few tutorials before introducing the lab. For some tutorial ideas see the Additional Resources section below. Be sure to allow the students enough time for exploration and open-ended investigations with the Google Earth tool. Some schools may not have sufficient band-width or computers to run Google Earth, check your connections before trying this lab with students. If at all possible, download and install Google Earth software before class begins!

Another option for teachers is to present this lab without the use of Google Earth. To accomplish this, teachers can use the screen shots provided in the lab, and/or the PowerPoint file, Climate and Biomes, linked above. Teachers may also choose to use the PPT file as a hands-on or assessment-type activity. In this case, follow the printing and other instructions included in the PowerPoint. A useful hands-on supplement to these labs would be world maps and globes.

As an advanced option, teachers may want to use the maps provided on this page: Observed and projected climate shifts 1901-2100 to discuss climate classification shifts on a global scale. Take time to explore the maps on this page before sharing them with students.

Student Notebooks

Suggestions for how to use Student Notebooks for Lab 4.
The following items are suggestions for inclusion in optional printed student notebooks. The materials are linked in the Printable Materials section, above.
  • Key Questions listed in introduction to lab
  • Stop and Think questions
  • Discussion Starters and a place to write notes
  • Relevant vocabulary and a place to write definitions
  • Extra blank sheets for sketches or notes
  • World Climate Map from Education Place
  • Whittaker Diagram in black and white – students can color in
  • Samples of climographs to explore and discuss 4B
  • Google Earth Instructions in print form 4B


There are several options for assessment of student understanding of material introduced in this lab. Choose from the following list, or create your own assessments.
Assessment Options:
  1. Assess student understanding of topics addressed in this investigation by grading their responses to the Stop and Think questions.
  2. Teachers may decide to collect and grade the biome presentations.
  3. Written Test for
    Lab 4

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    . (Answer

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Science Standards

Lab 4 supports following Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
Science and Engineering Practices:
2. Developing and Using Models
4. Analyzing and Interpreting Data
8. Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Cross Cutting Concepts:
1. Patterns
2. Cause and Effect

Examples of how students engage with the standards:

Go to Next Generation Science Standards.

Additional Resources

Explore background information and content extensions related to Lab 4.

Background Information

Biome Reference Links

Climatology Reference Links

  • What is Climatology?. This page contains the link to the Climographs and also has some interesting resources about drought.
  • Climate Zones Pop-up Map. This page requires users to register. It is from the COMET program at The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). Teachers may want to log-in for their students or create a class account to use. There are many helpful modules on this website.

Google Earth Tutorials

Teaching Resources

  • Link to Quicktime Movie / Slideshow (Quicktime Video 3.2MB Aug2 11) of biome images. This file can be displayed for the class in order to engage the students in a discussion of biodiversity and climate. The images are from around the world, including the Arctic and Antarctica. These are the same images as are used in the Google Earth project.
  • Climate and Biomes PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 13.9MB Oct6 11) of biome images and climographs. These are the same images as are used in the Google Earth project. This file can be used as a supplemental hands-on activity, in a full class discussion, or as an assessment. Instructions for using the file are included in the PowerPoint itself. The PowerPoint could be used as an alternative to the Google Earth project in the case that a school or student did not have access to Google Earth. In this case, a world map and/or globe would also be needed.
  • Zipped file (Zip Archive 23.7MB Aug24 11) of biome images. These are the same images as are used in the Google Earth project. To download this file, right-click and choose "Save Link As..." or "Save Target As..." and download the file to your downloads folder or desktop. Unzip the file and use an image viewing software to view the images. (Note: a key to the images will be provided soon.)

Content Extension

Students who are interested in climate change and its impacts on the Tundra and Taiga biomes may want to complete the How Permanent is Permafrost? Earth Exploration Toolbook chapter. This chapter also uses Google Earth and contains some useful tips for novice users of the tool.

A recent report from NASA JPL Climate Change May Bring Big Ecosystem Changes predicts that nearly 40 percent of land-based ecosystems will change from one community type to another by the year 2100 due to climate change.

Students who are interested in acquiring more detailed maps of climate classifications may wish to visit this site: World Map of Climate Classifications. Files are available in PDF, GIS, and Google Earth format.