Teaching Notes

Example Output

Example Output
Graph of Surface Air Temperature comparing the A1Fi scenario with a baseline scenario.

EdGCM computer software is capable of producing both map-based and graphical outputs. The graph of the right is a graphical output of temperature change over time comparing a baseline and modeled output.

Grade Level

This chapter is appropriate for students in grades 9-16.

Learning Goals

After completing this chapter, students will be able to:
  • gain insight into how Global Climate Models (GCM) are used to investigate global warming;
  • analyze climate simulation data;
  • compare and contrast the results of their global warming experiments with the actual observations compiled by climate scientists;
  • use EdGCM to visualize climate change's impact on a region and system of their own choosing; and
  • have the opportunity to present their visualization results to the class via PowerPoint or with the EdGCM journal feature.

Lesson Objectives

What are the big ideas and enduring understandings of this unit?
  • Energy transfers control the weather and climate.
  • Scientists use the laws of physics to predict future events.
  • Science is collaborative – teams of individuals work together to design experiments, present and understand outcomes.
  • The scientific method and mathematical models are used to understand the earth system and some implications of climate change
  • Scientific understanding is iterative; is a logical and rational order of steps by which scientists come to conclusions about the world around them with.

What are the essential questions needed to lead to this understanding?
  • How is climate modeling a form of experimentation that leads to an increased understanding of the earth system?
  • What are the important parts of a climate model?
  • How do scientists "program" a model? What variables are significant when designing an experiment to test climate change hypotheses?
  • What does the GCM predict about future impacts of climate change on water resources?


Global climate models are one of the primary tools used today in climate research. Because of the computer computational requirements these models were originally developed and housed at national laboratories run by the government science agencies. NASA's climate modeling lab, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), is located at Columbia University in New York City (this is also where EdGCM was developed). NOAA's lab, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, is located in Princeton, New Jersey, while NSF funds the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado.
As a result of their complexity, these models are not well understood by the general public. This EET chapter strives to give teachers and students the opportunity to more fully understand the process and potential of climate modeling through a hands-on interaction with an educational version of climate modeling software. This educational version of the software differs from the original climate modeling software only in that it is designed to run on school computers, which are generally smaller and have less computing power than the supercomputers used by national labs.
NASA/GISS National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Goddard Institute for Space Studies
NSF/NCAR National Science Foundation, National Center for Atmospheric Research
NOAA/GFDL National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory

Background Information and Resources

Basic information about the climate modeling and EdGCM written for teachers by the EdGCM team is available at EdGCM website. Part 1 of this chapter includes an introduction to climate modeling.

Some additional science articles on climate modeling that may also be of interest are listed below. Keep in mind these articles range in depth and difficulty. Please keep the age and ability of your students in mind when assigning reading. These resources may also be used for classroom presentation.


Glossary of Terms

  • Climate forcing: a variable that impacts climate, usually the focus of the climate experiment. Sets into motion the change.
  • Climate feedback: an element of the climate system altered by the climate forcing, which further amplifies or dampens the original effect. A feedback is said to be positive if it amplifies the effects, and is negative if it dampens them. Climate changes caused by positive feedbacks are often greater than those due to the original forcing.
  • Global climate model (GCM): computer model that simulates Earth's climate system in 3-D.
  • Grid cells: The 3-D elements into which the GCM's atmosphere, oceans and land surface are divided. The boundaries of grid cells are commonly expressed in degrees of latitude, longitude and height.
  • EdGCM - Educational Global Climate Model. A suite of software that allows users to set up and run a NASA climate model, as well as analyze and visualize the resulting data through a point-and-click interface.
  • EVA - EdGCM Visualization Application. Software for making maps and line plots of the EdGCM model data.
  • Experiment: One or more climate model simulations that are undertaken to test a hypothesis, make a discovery, or explore physical processes.
  • Fundamental Physics Equations: The essential, basic equations that calculate the Temperature, Pressure, Winds and Humidity at every grid cell in the GCM. They include four conservation equations (Mass, Moisture, Momentum, Energy) and the Equation of State.
  • Parameterizations: additional equations used by the GCM to calculate variables based on relationships derived from observations, experiments or theoretical analysis.
  • Resolution: the number of grid cells per unit area. A higher resolution model contains more grid cells per unit area.
  • Scenario: a set of conditions defining the characteristics of a simulation, including the geographic features as well as the state of climate forcings through time.
    • Future Climate Scenario: a scenario derived from social, economic and population growth predictions as well as fuel sources and advances in technology. Used with a GCM to examine the range of possible future climates.
    • Past Climate Scenario: a scenario whose set of conditions was derived from observations of past time periods. The observations are said to be "instrumental" if they were made using modern meteorological devices, or "proxy", if they were derived using geological methods.
  • Simulation or Run: The set of physical conditions and control parameters (such as the period of time to be simulated) that define an individual scenario setup for the GCM experiment.

Prerequisite Knowledge

Students will gain more from this exercise if they already have a basic working knowledge of climate and the factors that control it such as: elevation, latitude, the Earth's orbit, seasons, temperature and precipitation. This unit can be used as a stand-alone unit or embedded in a larger unit on climate change. Ideally, students should also know basic information on greenhouse gases, the IPCC reports and scenarios, and the issues surrounding climate change impacts. This background information can be found online at IPCC home or in most environmental science texts. A helpful, although somewhat technical, summary document from the ARWG 4 report is the frequently asked questions page. Other helpful background documents on climate modeling can be found in the reference links above. Listed below are four excellent sources of information on climate change.

Learning Contexts

Students begin this lesson by examining decreasing snow and ice coverage. Using this case study as the initial introduction to the technical skills needed to use EdGCM, students can use EdGCM to investigate other subjects and questions of their own design. Students can use EdGCM to investigate the impacts of climate change on temperature, precipitation, snow and ice coverage. Students will relate global processes to changes that affect them at a local level. The contexts or subject areas that this lesson is suited for are broad. The outcome of the discussions will be guided by the parameters set by the individual instructor. The outcome could be, social, environmental or economic. This lesson is suitable for environmental science, world politics, geography, or earth science classes.

A printable (PDF) of this lesson is available here. EET_EDGCM_PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 6.5MB Jun5 10)

Instructional Strategies

As this lesson is outlined, students begin as a large class for part 1, move to individual or paired grouping for parts 2-5 and then form small "research" teams for part 6. The final class period should be a large group discussion of the research team findings and a comparison of the students' observations with those of the IPCC global impact reports.

  1. Begin lesson with a recent news article or video clip.
    Suggestions for online videos:
  2. Use a world map to discuss the concept of the regionalism of climate impacts. Suggestions for online maps:
  3. Show the introductory EdGCM powerpoint (PowerPoint 6.8MB Aug23 09). Explain climate change and climate modeling.
  4. Review the background information and Case Study as a class. Alternately, begin the lesson with the information and suggested activity described in Part 6 - design your own investigation for a more global perspective.
  5. Optional alternative: Give students an introductory worksheet with the EdGCM buttons and toolbars defined. Allow time for students to explore the software before beginning the lesson.
  6. Complete the lesson parts 1-6.
  7. Wrap-up the lesson with impacts presentations and group activity from part 6.
  8. Show the Americas Choice video. Discuss what is being done by the United States and what can individuals do? Use resources such as http://www.koshland-science-museum.org/exhibitgcc/responses01.jsp carbon footprint calculator.

Assessment of Student Learning

Teachers can adapt these assessment suggestions to their own classroom situation.
  • Student work can be collected.
  • Students can create e-portfolios of their work including answers to questions, maps and graphs.
  • Part 6 - Design Your Own Investigation, could stand alone as an assessment of student work.

Time Required

Estimated times for completing the Case Study and each Part of the chapter. Total time 3-6, 45-minute periods will be needed to complete the case study and exercises.
Running the climate model is a time consuming step, taking anywhere from 12 to 24 hours per simulation. It is suggested that teachers begin the program well (several days) in advance of using it with classes. As an alternative to running the model, it is possible to directly download the output file. Instructions for this shortcut are listed at the bottom of the page in Part 1.

Step-by-Step; Outline and Descriptions
Preview -Introduction and Case Study
(45 minutes-can be done as homework)

Part 1-(1-24 hours, depending on connection) Download software, run simulation or download the output files for the 2 model runs; IPCC A1FI CO2 and Modern_PredictedSST

Part 2- (30 minutes)Prepare - Read background materials and discuss the theory of climate modelling.

Part 3-(45-90 minutes) Engage – Generate and Analyze a Time Series graph of temperature.
How dramatically will the Earth's surface temperature rise in the next century? What exactly is a model? How do climate change models work? What goes into the programming of a climate model?

Part 4-(50 minutes) Explore – Generate maps of surface air temperature using EVA.
Use Analyze Output in EdGCM to generate data sets that can be mapped. Then use EVA to create several maps of temperature and snow and ice coverage under both global warming and non-global warming scenarios. Discuss why averaging is important.

Part 5-(50 minutes) Examine – How will climate change impact winter snow and ice in the northern hemisphere?
Use EVA to create a difference (anomaly) map of Snow and Ice Coverage.

Part 6-(30 -60 minutes) Elaborate (and Assess) – Learn about climate changes impacts on another region, present findings to class.
Use EdGCM and EVA to investigate another region and impact of your choice. Present your findings to the class. Why is climate change a truly global problem?

Science Standards

The following National Science Education Standards are supported by this chapter:
Addtional Standards are referenced in the Manual for EdGCM (Acrobat (PDF) 7.2MB Aug15 09)

Grades 5-8

  • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data.
    The use of tools and techniques, including mathematics, will be guided by the question asked and the investigations students design. The use of computers for the collection, summary, and display of evidence is part of this standard. Students should be able to access, gather, store, retrieve, and organize data, using hardware and software designed for these purposes.
  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.
    Thinking critically about evidence includes deciding what evidence should be used and accounting for anomalous data. Specifically, students should be able to review data from a simple experiment, summarize the data, and form a logical argument about the cause-and-effect relationships in the experiment. Students should begin to state some explanations in terms of the relationship between two or more variables.
  • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.
    With practice, students should become competent at communicating experimental methods, following instructions, describing observations, summarizing the results of other groups, and telling other students about investigations and explanations.
  • Technology used to gather data enhances accuracy and allows scientists to analyze and quantify results of investigations.8ASI2.4
  • Women and men of various social and ethnic backgrounds - and with diverse interests, talents, qualities, and motivations - engage in the activities of science, engineering, and related fields such as the health professions.
    Some scientists work in teams, and some work alone, but all communicate extensively with others.

Grades 9-12

  • Formulate and revise scientific explanations and models using logic and evidence.
    Student inquiries should culminate in formulating an explanation or model. Models should be physical, conceptual, and mathematical. In the process of answering the questions, the students should engage in discussions and arguments that result in the revision of their explanations. These discussions should be based on scientific knowledge, the use of logic, and evidence from their investigation.
  • Use technology and mathematics to improve investigations and communications.
    A variety of technologies, such as hand tools, measuring instruments, and calculators, should be an integral component of scientific investigations. The use of computers for the collection, analysis, and display of data is also a part of this standard. Mathematics plays an essential role in all aspects of an inquiry. For example, measurement is used for posing questions, formulas are used for developing explanations, and charts and graphs are used for communicating results.
  • Scientists rely on technology to enhance the gathering and manipulation of data.
    New techniques and tools provide new evidence to guide inquiry and new methods to gather data, thereby contributing to the advance of science. The accuracy and precision of the data, and therefore the quality of the exploration, depends on the technology used.

Geography Standards

Standard 1. How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective.

Standard 5. That people create regions to interpret Earth's complexity.

Standard 7. The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth's surface.

Standard 13. How the forces of cooperation and conflict among people influence the division and control of Earth's surface.

Standard 14. How human actions modify the physical environment.

Standard 15. How physical systems affect human systems.

Standard 18. How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future.