Lab 5: Extreme Weather

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

Summary and Learning Objectives

Students read articles from sources such as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NASA, the National Weather Service (NWS), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and develop summaries of unusual weather patterns that have occurred in recent years. They read and share 2-page articles of indicators of climate change from the EPA. Then they examine and discuss maps of changing global temperature and precipitation patterns and relate the changes in climate to changes in the suitability of a region for a particular plant species.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • define and describe the indicators of climate change;
  • describe "extreme" weather events and define climate variability; and
  • investigate climate models and predictions for future climate and weather patterns, especially temperature changes and explain the concept of "anomaly."

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 review a series of reports, in video and print form, about recent extreme weather events and consider their meaning: are they typical random outliers, or are they harbingers of change in long-term averages? Students read an extreme weather report and prepare a presentation about that event for the class. Parts of this lab can be completed offline.
Time required: 50 minutes

In Part B: Students view a series of computer-based videos, interactive online presentations, printed or online articles, graphs, and visualizations that all provide evidence that Earth's climate is changing. Students are asked to read, record and discuss the indicators and look for connections between the different sets of data. Students conclude the lesson with a discussion of the connections between the indicators of climate change. Parts of this lab can be completed offline. Tools needed: PowerPoint (optional), scissors, 4x6 note cards or half-sheets of card stock paper, tape or glue sticks.
Time required: 80 minutes

In Part C: The focus of this lab is global temperature change over various temporal and spatial scales from shortapproximately 50 years, to ice-age scales, which take place over hundreds of thousands of years. Students view graphs, and maps, and use a simple interactive model to make the connection between carbon dioxide concentration and temperature. This lab requires a live Internet connection.
Time required: 50 minutes

In Part D: Students learn about climate models that scientists use to simulate various climate scenarios and the factors that drive them. They are also introduced to four scenarios of the future developed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This lab requires a live Internet connection.
Time required: 50 minutes

Time required: 150 -300 minutes, or 3-5 class periods, are needed to complete these labs. Parts of the labs can be assigned as homework.

A Note About Flash -

This lab contains Flash-based interactives. Visit our Flash Information Page for directions and to test that your computer is set up for Flash.

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) 23kB Aug7 18) and PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 86kB Dec9 12))
  • Suggested Answers

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    to Stop and Think Questions.

Printable materials for Lab 5B

Teaching Notes and Tips

General recommendations for classroom implementation as well as guidelines and facilitation tips for leading class discussions.
General Recommendations:

Parts A and B: Climate Change or Global Warming? What's happening?...Both. The warming globe triggers a much broader set of climate changes. For example consider the following set of circumstances that occur as the atmosphere warms: the volume of ice and snow (cryosphere) decreases; the volume of the ocean increases; the amount of moisture in the atmosphere increases; triggering increased precipitation; and the biosphere changes in response to all of these. The interconnectedness of Earth's atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere (solid earth), and biosphere result in changes that are much broader than the term global warming by itself suggests. See Additional Resources, below, for more background information on how we know climate change is happening.

Part A: According to scientists at NOAA, the number of extreme weather events in the United States and worldwide has risen in the past four decades. In this lesson, students read and share articles about extreme weather events. One suggested method would be to give student teams articles to read and then have them present the articles to one another as if they were newscasters. There are seven sample articles link on the Module Resources page; more articles can be located on the NASA Earth Observatory site by using the search term: "weather" or "extreme weather." Other extreme weather resources from NOAA (background, historical data, and events) are linked below, and also in the Optional Extensions section of the student lesson.

Part B: What is climate change, and how do we "know" it is happening, is the goal of this lesson. To begin, students view an introductory video clip. After the video, students complete an activity matching questions and answers about climate change. detailed teacher notes (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 100kB Apr19 12). They then read, analyze, and discuss one of the 20 indicators of climate change in the United States. (printable PDF files of articles are linked below). At the end of this lab teachers will want to pull the class together for a discussion of change, indicators, and the timescales that allow us to detect those changes. (i.e., can a slow change be detected in a short time period? or how many years do we need to see a trend develop?). Students will build a class concept map showing the relationships between the different indicators of climate change (see sample below). Teachers should review the following guidelines, websites, and reading materials in preparation for this discussion.
Purpose of the discussion: Now that students have examined data from individual climate change indicators, the purpose of this discussion is to view the connections between those indicators, and to identify positive and negative feedbacks in the climate system.

Primary discussion question: Gather as a class. Share and discuss the indicators of climate change slide show and the data that you have analyzed. Together, build a class concept map of correlations and connections between the data sets. Look for feedback loops: are there processes that amplify (speed up) or dampen (slow down) climate change?

Facilitation tips: After completing the activities in 5B, lead a student discussion to build a connection circle.
  1. Walk the students through one simple connection circle, as follows:
    1. Begin with the central idea: Greenhouse gases trap energy, which cause a warmer atmosphere. Write that sentence on a white board or large sheet of paper.
    2. List one direct effect of the increased atmospheric temperature, such as more evaporation from the land and ocean. Write that impact in a bubble and then draw an arrow between the two ideas.
    3. Next, list an impact resulting from the change in evaporation, for example, stronger storms or increased humidity. Connect the two impacts.
    4. Then draw an arrow from increased humidity back to greenhouse gases, completing the loop.
    5. Explain to students that this is an example of an amplifying connection, or positive, feedback.
    6. Note that at this point, not all of the connections will make a full circle, back to the beginning; each group has one piece of a larger puzzle.
  2. After this introduction, give students time (5-10 minutes) to work through a connection circle. Have them use the indicator that they studied in the previous section of the lesson.
  3. Once students have worked on their own part of the connection concept map, bring the class together for a brainstorming session to look for further connections. Continue with the full class discussion by building off of the example in step 1a, above.
  4. Use post-its or note cards to diagram out the next levels. Draw arrows between related impacts. Look for connections beyond the ones shown in the sample image.
  5. Note that most of the climate connections shown in this example are positive, or amplifying, feedbacks. Point out to students that an example of a negative, or dampening, feedback could be increased evaporation which will cause more cloud cover, resulting in more reflected sun energy, and subsequently slowing the rate of warming. Look for other feedback connections in the chart.
Wrap Up: Ask students to continue to think about weather and climate connections (both big and small) that they observe. Getting people to observe the world around them is critical to understanding, and appreciating, how the Earth system works.

  • Global Climate Change Indicatorssupplemental material for teachers or advanced students.
  • Climate Change Indicators in the United Statessource of printable PDF files of articles, linked below. Website contains more information about each indicator in their Explore Climate Change Indicators section; more advanced students could be tasked with learning more about their indicators on the 2-7pg PDF files found there.
Sample relationship web for Lab 5B discussion. Source: EPA Climate Change Basics.

Part C: Students will get a better sense of how rapidly the most recent—century-scale—changes in global temperature are taking place as compared to past—millennial-scale—changes. Through the use of online computer simulations, they gain a better understanding of the interrelationship between global temperatures and atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. Finally, they view satellite maps showing the spatial patterns of global warming over the past 150 years.

Part D: Climate Models are complex sets of mathematical equations, set up as computer programs, that simulate the interconnectedness of the components of the Earth system. They are based on basic physical processes, mathematical equations representing these processes, and data that scientists collect. Together these datasets inform scientists of the actual relationships among Earth system components. Once a model has been tested and refined to the point where it accurately reflects these physical interactions, it can be used to test future scenarios. Take time to review the terminology introduced in this lesson: storylines, scenarios, and models. There are several multimedia links in this lab that will give students more details about how models are built from storylines and scenarios. It may help students to begin the discussion by thinking about the idea of a "storyline" or plot sketch, as if they were in a literature or cinema class. Note: In 2013 a new method of visualizing how global temperature may change as a result of the addition of GHGs, was introduced. This method of projection is known as Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs).

For more information about climate models and RCPs, see Additional Resources below.

Student Notebooks

Suggestions for how to use Student Notebooks for Lab 5.
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
  • Scientific American Article about extreme weather (2011)
  • FAQ's about climate change to cut and sort (from EPA)
  • Connection circle starter diagram
  • Place to record data from very simple climate model interactive


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 extreme weather presentations.
  3. Written Test for
    Lab 5

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    . (Answer

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Science Standards

Lab 5 supports following Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
Disciplinary Core Ideas:
HS ESS2.D. Changes in the atmosphere due to human activities...
Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate. (HS-ESS2-6),(HS-ESS2-4)

MS ESS3.D. Human activities, such as the release ...
Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth's mean surface temperature (global warming). Reducing the level of climate change and reducing human vulnerability to whatever climate changes do occur depend on the understanding of climate science, engineering capabilities, and other kinds of knowledge, such as understanding of human behavior and on applying that knowledge wisely in decisions and activities. (MS-ESS3-5)

1. Though the magnitude of human impacts ...
Though the magnitudes of human impacts are greater than they have ever been, so too are human abilities to model, predict, and manage current and future impacts. (HS-ESS3-5)

2. Through computer simulations and other studies ...
Through computer simulations and other studies, important discoveries are still being made about how the ocean, the atmosphere, and the biosphere interact and are modified in response to human activities. (HS-ESS3-6)

Science and Engineering Practices:
2. Developing and Using Models
3. Planning and Carrying out Investigations
4. Analyzing and Interpreting Data
7. Engaging in Argument From Evidence
8. Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating information

Cross Cutting Concepts:
1. Patterns
2. Cause and Effect
4. Systems and System Models
7. Stability and Change

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 5.

Background Information

Resources on Climate Change Resources on Climate Change and Extreme Weather Recent Articles on Extreme Weather Climate Models
  • Background Information page of an Earth Exploration Toolbook chapter on climate modeling. This EET chapter also has additional links and ideas for introducing climate change and climate modeling in the Teaching Notes section.
  • The Complexity of Climate Modeling from the UCAR website.
  • There are several good introductory videos on modeling available on the National Science Foundation Science 360 website To What Degree?. These videos may also be appropriate for students.
  • You can learn more about models, especially how they are constructed and used, by downloading and reading this PowerPoint presentation file from NOAA's presentation library. What is Climate Modeling? PPT file (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 6.3MB Jun20 11)
  • A brief explanation of Climate Models and Future Climate from NOAA.
  • Climate Modeling 101 presents a detailed explanation of climate models and how they are similar to and different from weather models. Suitable for student audiences.

Content Extension

  • Envisioning Climate Change Using a Global Climate Model Earth Exploration Toolbook chapter explains climate modeling and gives users the opportunity to download and run a climate model (EdGCM) on their desktop computer. The chapter is appropriate for advanced high-school students.