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Unit 1 Forecasting Climate Variability and Change: A Matter of Survival

Cindy Shellito, University of Northern Colorado (

These materials have been reviewed for their alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards as detailed below. Visit InTeGrate and the NGSS to learn more.


Students synthesize and discuss the impacts of past climate variability on human civilization, taking into account feedbacks, variability and human responses.

Science and Engineering Practices

Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information: Critically read scientific texts adapted for classroom use to determine the central ideas and/or obtain scientific and/or technical information to describe patterns in and/or evidence about the natural and designed world(s). MS-P8.1:

Cross Cutting Concepts

Stability and Change: Explanations of stability and change in natural or designed systems can be constructed by examining the changes over time and forces at different scales, including the atomic scale. MS-C7.1:

Patterns: Empirical evidence is needed to identify patterns. HS-C1.5:

Disciplinary Core Ideas

Natural Resources: Resource availability has guided the development of human society. HS-ESS3.A1:

Natural Hazards: Natural hazards and other geologic events have shaped the course of human history; [they] have significantly altered the sizes of human populations and have driven human migrations. HS-ESS3.B1:

Earth Materials and Systems: The geological record shows that changes to global and regional climate can be caused by interactions among changes in the sun’s energy output or Earth’s orbit, tectonic events, ocean circulation, volcanic activity, glaciers, vegetation, and human activities. These changes can occur on a variety of time scales from sudden (e.g., volcanic ash clouds) to intermediate (ice ages) to very long-term tectonic cycles. HS-ESS2.A3:

Earth Materials and Systems: Earth’s systems, being dynamic and interacting, cause feedback effects that can increase or decrease the original changes. HS-ESS2.A1:

Performance Expectations

Earth and Human Activity: Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity. HS-ESS3-1:

This material was developed and reviewed through the InTeGrate curricular materials development process. This rigorous, structured process includes:

  • team-based development to ensure materials are appropriate across multiple educational settings.
  • multiple iterative reviews and feedback cycles through the course of material development with input to the authoring team from both project editors and an external assessment team.
  • real in-class testing of materials in at least 3 institutions with external review of student assessment data.
  • multiple reviews to ensure the materials meet the InTeGrate materials rubric which codifies best practices in curricular development, student assessment and pedagogic techniques.
  • review by external experts for accuracy of the science content.

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

Resources in this top level collection a) must have scored Exemplary or Very Good in all five review categories, and must also rate as “Exemplary” in at least three of the five categories. The five categories included in the peer review process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: Jun 24, 2014


An Introduction to Climate Variability, Climate Change, and Climate Impacts

This unit is designed to engage students in the topics of climate variability and climate change by introducing them to impacts of changes on human society and cultures in the past. Students read an article about the impacts of climate change on the Incas, Mayans, and Vikings. A class discussion focuses on examining the differences between climate change and climate variability, the impacts on different cultures, and the causes of climate change.

Learning Goals

Unit 1 Teaching Objectives

  • Affective: Facilitate discussion of impacts of climate variability and climate change in the Tropics and polar regions and impacts on past civilizations.
  • Cognitive: Promote understanding of the idea that climate change can occur as the result of some forcing or trigger, or as the result of internal variability, and that feedbacks can enhance or mitigate climate change.

Unit 1 Learning Outcomes

  • Students will articulate (verbally, in group discussion) the impacts of climate variability on Incan culture, and the role of climate change in the eventual decline of Mayan and Viking settlements.
  • Students will be able to list factors that lead to climate change, and distinguish between forced (external to the climate system) climate change and unforced climate change.
  • Students will diagram a feedback in the climate system and state whether the feedback would be considered positive or negative.

Context for Use

This unit may be used as an introduction to the Climate of Change module, or as a stand-alone introduction to climate variability and climate change and impacts to human society. This unit would be appropriate in introductory-level college courses in the physical or social sciences. It could also be incorporated at the beginning or near the end of a semester.

Description and Teaching Materials

In preparation for this unit, students should read the following article: Climate Forecasting and Adaptation through the Ages (student version).

Instructors may also wish to give students a short quiz to complete after reading the above article to test for reading comprehension: Unit 1 - Reading Comprehension Quiz (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 115kB May22 14) Another option is to assign the article discussion questions as homework. A template for this assignment is available in this document: Unit 1 - Discussion Preparation (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 90kB May22 14).

In class, students discuss the article, and their initial thoughts about climate change via a gallery walk and a class discussion. The point of this lesson is to familiarize students with the idea that climate has always impacted humans, introduce them to the difference between climate variability and climate change, and prompt them to think about factors that drive climate change. A detailed plan for a 50-minute class period is available below and is available for download in this document: Unit 1 - Teaching Notes (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 139kB Mar21 14).

Here you will find questions to use in a gallery walk: Unit 1 - Gallery Walk Questions (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 116kB May22 14).

A short study guide provides students and opportunity to practice new vocabulary and test their understanding: Unit 1 Study Guide: Climate Variability and Change.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Below you will find a sample plan for a 50-minute lecture period.

In class, you will need:

a whiteboard or chalkboard

large paper and pens for students to write on

5 min: Provide directions to students regarding how the gallery walk will work, and how they will break into groups. This will require the full five minutes in a large class, and less in a small class.

15–20 min: Students will break into groups of three to four and do a gallery walk considering questions from the above article. If time is short and the class is large, allow each group to visit and discuss three questions. If there is more time, students could visit all questions. After students have had a chance to visit questions, you may discuss a selection—or all—of the questions. This could be completed as a jigsaw in a small class. In a large class, ask each group to put an asterisk next to one or two items on their poster that they would like to share with the rest of the class. Have each group choose a reporter who will share this with the class.

15–20 min: Follow the gallery walk with an interactive lecture/discussion summarizing student comments, and focused on the following questions (ask students these questions as prompts). It will probably work best (and save time!) to choose a subset of questions to focus on.

Do you think these peoples were responding to short-term or long-term climate change?
What is the difference between short-term and long-term climate change? What time frame do we use to distinguish short-term and long-term?
  3. Are there differences in the types of climate changes that affected people in low vs. high latitudes?
What is climate? (average over how long?) What fields are used to describe climate (temp & precip)?
What affects climate in a particular location? (student brainstorm)
Proximity to oceans, latitude, elevation, mountains, land surface, etc...
What determines global average climate? (brainstorm external forcing factors) What things are external to the climate system?
What are internal factors affecting climate? How do they affect climate?

~5 min: Introduce the concept of feedback (this will take the rest of the class, if you're not already at the end!)

Definition of a feedback: A feedback is a process responding to some initial forcing that will either amplify the initial effect of the forcing (positive feedback) or negate/reduce the initial effect of the forcing (negative feedback).

~5 min: Student Reflection (This may be done as homework or at the beginning of the next class if there is not enough time): After learning about the concept of feedback, ask students to think-pair-share to come up with their own example of a feedback (any process). Also, have students recall (on their own) factors that affect climate change. Have them do this quickly, simply creating a list. Before debriefing, also ask them to try to describe one example of an impact of climate variability in the modern world, and one example of an impact of climate change.


Assessment on article reading (may be done orally or as a written essay for a homework assignment or exam):

Learning Outcome #1: Describe the impacts of climate change on the three early civilizations discussed in the article (the people of the Andes, the Mayans, and the Vikings in Greenland).

Possible exam questions:

Learning Outcome #2: List three factors that affect the climate of a particular location, and two factors that can force a change in global climate.

Learning Outcome #3: Diagram a feedback in the climate system. Explain how it works and whether it is a positive or negative feedback.

Unit 1 - Assessment Answers

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Student Self-Assessment

Students can check their understanding of the article Climate Forecasting and Adaptation through the Ages, with the following quiz: Unit 1 - Reading Comprehension Quiz (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 115kB May22 14).

Ideally, the quiz could be available to students online, through your campus course management system, so that they could take the quiz after reading the article and receive immediate feedback. The quiz may also be given at the beginning of class before the gallery walk, if time permits.

References and Resources

Reference Articles for Instructors on Climate Impacts on Early Civilizations:

Curtis, J. H., D. A. Hodell, and M. Brenner. 1996. Climate variability on the Yucatan Peninsula (Mexico) during the past 3500 Years, and implications for Maya cultural evolution.Quaternary Research 46, 37–47.

D'Andrea, W. J., Y. Huang, S. C. Fritz, and N. J. Anderson. 2011. Abrupt Holocene climate change as an important factor for human migration in West Greenland. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 24, 9765–69.

Hodel, D. A., J. H. Curtis, and M. Brenner. 1995. Possible role of climate in the collapse of Classic Maya civilization. Nature 375, 391–94.

Medina-Elizalde, M., and E. J. Rohling. 2012. Collapse of the Classic Maya civilization related to modest reduction in precipitation. Science 335, 956–50.

Orlove, B. S., J. C. H. Chiang, and M. A. Cane. 2000. Forecasting Andean rainfall and crop yield from the influence of El Niño on Pleiades visibility. Nature 403, 68–71.

Ribeiro, S., M. Moros, M. Ellegaard, and A. Kuijpers. 2011. Climate variability in West Greenland during the past 1500 years: Evidence from a high-resolution marine palynological record from Disko Bay. Boreas DOI 10.1111/j.1502-388.2011.00216.x.

Additional Resources for Instructors:

CAMEL Climate Home Page

RealClimate - Climate science from climate scientists

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »