Lab 7: Future of the Forest: Climate Patterns and Life

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

Summary and Learning Objectives

Students return to the issue of the declining maple syrup production. Using their knowledge of the relationship between climate patterns and biomes, they predict how climate change will alter the maple syrup industry and use modeled temperature and precipitation data to select an ideal habitat range for sugar maple trees. Students will then examine other plant suitability maps and explore how climate change is impacting all plant life and what that change means for ecosystems.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • describe how the climate has changed in the recent past (since 1950) and how it is predicted to change in the future; and
  • describe how tree (and plant) species may change in response to changing climate.
Open the Student Lab »

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 continue to explore the relationship between biomes and climate and, in particular, the ways in which trees migrate in response to climate change. The lab requires a live Internet connection.
Time required: 50 minutes

In Part B: Students predict changes in the sugar maple forests that are likely to result in response to climate change. The lab requires a live Internet connection.
Time required: 30 minutes

In Part C: In this culminating lab, students consider what species of trees they might plant in their local area to help offset the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In this exercise, students also consider how climate determines which plant species are suitable for a region. See the Additional Resources section for more information on this topic. The lab requires a live Internet connection, although parts can be completed offline.
Time required: 50 minutes

Tools needed: Internet browser, Adobe Reader, Flash Player.

Time required: 130 -200 minutes, or 3-4 class periods are needed to complete these labs. (Part C can be done 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) 155kB Dec26 18) and PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 217kB Apr27 12))
  • Suggested Answers

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    to Stop and Think Questions

Teaching Notes and Tips

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

While the focus of this lab is the migration of trees in response to the warming climate, an important related discussion is the change in the entire ecosystem. If trees in a particular location migrate in response to climate, what happens to the rest of the ecosystem? What life forms will be similarly disrupted by a change in climate? Or by changes to the forest? Students work through several exercises examining the changing forest and then conclude by examining changes in their own "home" ecosystem and choosing appropriate tree species for the future. This a good point to take students back outside to the tree that they visited in the opening lesson. While outside, have a discussion about the changing climate and the future of their tree. Teachers may also want to invite a local arborist to come speak to the class about trees and their needs.

Part A: Teachers will want to check the links before class. Also, a review of modeling may be needed before returning to the Climate Wizard site. Students will read the Silva Culture Information – Maple Sugar tree article about the sugar maple. The key point is that the temperature and precipitation conditions that are ideal for the sugar maple may no longer be present in the southern part of this tree's range in a 30-50 year time span. Teachers can emphasize how quickly 30-50 years can pass by discussing students' plans for the future. "Can't the trees just "migrate" north to Canada?" some may ask. The answer is: the soils in Canada are not suitable for the maple tree and even if they were, the migration of trees is now more complicated as we have added roads, housing sub-divisions, and shopping malls. In the past, when the ice sheets retreated, trees adapted because the change was slow. This change in climate is many times faster. Get students thinking about the implications of climate change for their own lives in 30-50 years with the discussion described below.

Purpose of the discussion: As students look at predicted climate changes in their home region, they may need to step back and consider the implications for their own lives. How will the trees and other plants have changed? How might the change affect their recreation or livelihood in 30 -50 years? Encourage students to think beyond the next few years, to the time when they are adults. What do they hope to be doing at that time?

Facilitation Tips: Write the primary discussion question on the board. If possible, seat students facing one another in a semi-circle. Have students stand at the front to share their responses.

Primary discussion question:
Put climate change in perspective by considering the following:

  • How old will you be in 2050, 2080?
  • How much will the temperature in most of the United States have changed by 2080?
  • Give several examples of how the increase in average temperature or precipitation could impact your daily life.

Wrap Up: The discussion is open-ended and meant to get students thinking forward; there is no absolute answer.

Part B: Preview the two video clips: Sugaring Wisconsin and Maple Sugar Production (link is in lower-right corner of page) before class, be prepared to answer student questions about the maple sugaring process and why it is changing in the southern part of the range.

Scientists at Cornell University, near Ithaca, New York, have studied the changes in the onset and duration of the maple sugar season. Students will read this short synopsis of their findings: Maple Sap will flow a month earlier and work with an interactive showing the changes. The significant message in this part of the lesson is that if farmers adapt to the new time period of the sugaring season, they will still have sap flow in the northern part of the range. However, in the southern part of the range, as the climate warms, there will not be sufficient numbers of freeze days for sap flow, even if farmers adapt, the industry will not thrive.

Purpose of the discussion: This is the concluding discussion for the case study: the changes in the maple syrup sap flow. It is intended to help students to synthesize all that they have learned about climate's impact on plants, and the people who work with and depend on plants (that's all of us who eat). This lab is presented from the point of view of the farmers.

Primary discussion question: What observations of climate change do the farmers in Wisconsin and New England have in common? How has the spring run of maple sugar changed during their years of work with the maple tree?

Do you have relatives or friends that work in the out-of-doors or with plants? What can plants tell us about the weather and climate that we might not notice without them? What are the impacts of climate change on plants in your region?

Facilitation Tips: Have students make a two-column chart in their notebooks or on a piece of paper. Label one side New England the other Wisconsin. Break the class into two smaller groups to discuss their notes, assign one group to represent farmers from New England, the other Wisconsin. If necessary, replay the videos. Have the students list on their charts, the changes that are described in the videos.

After reviewing the videos and their notes, bring the class back together as a large group to compare their information and concerns. Note the similarities and differences in the two stories. One of the keys to confirming climate change is the fact that similar changes are showing up in multiple locations.

Wrap Up: Return to the Maple Syrup Sap Flow days interactive and work through it as a class. Take time to relate the change in the duration of flow to climate. Note that the sap flow days are moving towards the coldest possible period, December. Since the trees need to go through a winter "dormant period" in order for the sap to flow, the season cannot continue to move beyond this time frame.

Teachers may want to elaborate on the changes in other agricultural products by sharing the U.S. Climate Impacts by Sector: Agriculture from Lab 7A.

Part C: This lab is intended to get students thinking about trees' role in mitigating climate change as well as having the students synthesize what they have learned about habitat suitability. Time will be needed for individual (or small group) research and presentations. Resources for this research are listed on the student page and in the Additional Resources section below. Teachers may want to precede this lab with a walk around campus or a short field trip to get students thinking about their local trees, available habitats, and climate. If a field trip or walk is not possible, a slide show can be an alternative way to get "outside." Students can be asked to prepare these slide shows as a homework assignment.

Student Notebooks

Suggestions for how to use Student Notebooks for Lab 7.
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
  • Article from Cornell University scientists: Maple sap to flow a month earlier 7B
  • USDA brochures on trees to read 7C


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 final presentations.
  3. Written Test for
    Lab 7

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    . (Answer

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Science Standards

Lab 7 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:
1. Asking and Defining Problems
2. Developing and Using Models
4. Analyzing and Interpreting Data
7. Engaging in Argument From Evidence

Cross Cutting Concepts:
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 7.

Background Information

No matter where you live there are plants. In this lab, students will consider the impacts of climate and climate change on the forest ecosystem. The following links emphasize the relationship between climate change and plants.
  • The National Climate Assessment, Forests gives a complete overview of anticipated changes in forest ecology in the next century.
  • This excellent interactive tutorial by the U.S. Forest Service, Climate Change Effects on Forests and Grasslands can be used as a introduction or wrap-up to this module.
  • NY Times article (Dec 23, 2014) Forests Making Inroads Against Climate Change describes successful efforts to reverse global deforestation.
  • Scientists at Cornell University, near Ithaca, New York, have studied the changes in the onset and duration of the maple sugar season.
  • Teachers and students may be interested to review this NOAA article and associated links, published June 2011, on plants and climate change. The New Climate Normals: Gardeners Expect Warmer Nights.
  • This Flash-based slide show Plants and Climate change may also engage students.
  • This report U.S. Climate Impacts by Sector: Agriculture (also available as a downloadable PDF file) summarizes impacts on Agriculture in the U.S.
  • This website Search for Environmental Resources by State from the Environmental literacy council has environmental resource links for each state. Some of the resources included are: forestry, water, fish and wildlife, maps, mining, and parks. The links will aid students and teachers in research about local issues.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Plants database provides links, images, and information about trees and plants.
  • A handy tree guide for Texas trees and ecoregions Texas AMU tree ID

Content Extension

Students and teachers may want to look into other impacts of climate change on the United States. There are many citizen science opportunities available for students to become involved in monitoring how the climate is changing life in their own backyard. Several examples are listed below.

  • Project Budburstincludes materials for teachers and students. Additional resources include a mapping and a mobile phone application.
  • Picture Postshows you how you can get started recording change in your own backyard ecosystem.

As a hands-on extension, teachers may consider planting trees in their own school yard or community park. Another alternative would be to arrange a visit a local plant nursery, arboretum, botanical garden, or nature center to learn more about tree species, habitats, or climate. If that is not possible, even a walk around the neighborhood can get students thinking about weather, climate, and plants.