Unit 1: Overview of Earth's Climate System
Unit 1 serves as an introduction to Earth's climate system components. After exploring climate data, students are introduced to the natural processes responsible for global climate and how specific variables are interpreted by scientists.
Students will be able to explain the interconnectedness of Earth's climate system components after exploring climate data.
By the end of this unit, students will be able to:
- differentiate between climate and weather.
- explain the interconnectedness of the five components (hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, geosphere, atmosphere) of Earth's climate system.
- describe how scientists collect and interpret paleoclimatic data.
- identify trends in a graph of paleoclimatic data.
Context for Use
This unit can be used as an introduction to climate change for students who have no climate science background or as a review for students with some climate science background. This unit can be used by itself or preceding Units 2–5 of the Cli-Fi module. If this module is being taught in a humanities course, students should explore the resources provided. If this module is being taught in a course in which the students have some climate science background, this section will allow students to explore climate change in a broader, systems-based context. The InTeGrate module Climate of Change has several activities and case studies that are appropriate as an introduction to the unit. In addition, there are resources below that will help explain important concepts.
The activities in this unit can fit into two 50-minute class meetings.
Description and Teaching Materials
To do these activities, you will need:
- A projection system to display a PowerPoint presentation.
- Several large sheets of paper to post on the walls.
- Markers for students to write on the sheets of paper.
- Unit 1 Part 1 Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 596kB Mar17 16) for each student. Note that you can update this to the most recent data by downloading a graph of the last five years of CO2 data from Mauna Loa as well as a graph of the last 50 years of CO2 data to put into this handout and/or show in class.
- Unit 1 Part 2 Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Mar17 16) for each student.
Prior to Class
Before teaching this unit, students should have some basic background on climate change. Depending on the nature of the course, you can ask students to read an appropriate textbook chapter on climate change commonly found in introductory Earth or environmental science textbooks, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) publication Climate Change Evidence and Causes, or selections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate.gov site, including News and Features about How Climate Works or Climate Q&A, as background information on climate change.
Part 1: How do data provide information about Earth's global climate?
Hand out the Unit 1 Part 1 Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 596kB Mar17 16) and briefly explain how graphs are a way to visualize large sets of data. Then allow students to complete the activity:
A. Point students to the graph of recent (last five years) monthly mean CO2 data from Mauna Loa in the handout and tell them to answer the following questions:
- What variable is plotted on the x-axis? Y-axis?
- In your own words, what does the red line represent? What does the black line represent?
- Describe how CO2 changes over time. Does one line (red or black) represent that change better than another?
- What do you think causes or contributes to the variation in CO2?
B. Point students to the graph of 50 years of CO2 data from Mauna Loa and tell them to answer the following questions:
- Is this graph plotting the same data on the x and y axes (as the first graph)? How do the range of data on the axes differ from the first graph?
- Describe how CO2changes over time. Does one line (red or black) represent that change better than another?
- What do you think contributes to the variation in CO2?
- Does a longer data set (50 years of data) change the contributing factors or how you interpret the graph?
Once they have finished, have students pass their papers to a different student and, going over the activity as a class, have the students complete a peer review.
Briefly discuss the required reading (websites or textbook chapters) about climate change. Ask the students why they think or do not think climate change is "important" (note that the term "important" is purposely left undefined by the instructor). Ask the students to explain their answers. This can be completed as a class-wide discussion, a "think-pair-share" activity, or a "minute paper."
Part 2: What is climate change?
Using the Overview of Earth's Climate System PowerPoint (PowerPoint 15.1MB Mar17 16) and the associated resources, introduce students to climate change-related concepts (e.g. Earth's system components and interactions, feedback mechanisms) and describe the natural processes responsible for global climate change. We have a separate file of
Following the class discussion, ask students to develop a concept map that illustrates the interconnectedness of Earth's system components. To get them started, it may help to start the concept map as a class activity. We suggest drawing on the whiteboard so the instructor incorporates student suggestions into the concept map.
Concept mapping is an effective tool for introducing and teaching about systems thinking by making sense of relationships among concepts, content, and events using words and hierarchical, spatial relationships. These can be very challenging the first time around, for both students and instructors. Here is an excellent introduction to concept mapping from the Humans' Dependence on Mineral Resources module.
A good place to start would be with the atmosphere. Ask the students if the atmosphere could affect any other sphere and how. Try to guide suggestions to climate-related interaction, such as: increasing temperatures in the atmosphere melts ice sheets in the crysophere. Now ask the students how the melting cryosphere could affect another sphere. For example: as more of the the cryosphere melts, habitats of some animals in the biosphere are altered. From here, the students should be able to create the concept map.
Use the Unit 1 Part 2 Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Mar17 16) to have the students create a concept map that illustrates the interconnectedness of Earth's system components. The concept map should:
- Include the five components of Earth's climate system.
- Have connections between each of the five components of Earth's climate system. Include labels that describe each connection (e.g. reinforcing feedback, countervailing feedback, lag, flux, reinforcing, limiting).
- Include at least one variable for each component that can be directly or indirectly measured.
After the students have completed a concept map, they will identify the parts of the map where they are most and least confident. Students will then research the areas of least confidence to improve their concept maps.
Break the students into small groups to compare each others' concept maps. Alternatively, divide the students into groups and have each group create a concept map on the large sheets of paper (or the whiteboard).
If you are giving Unit 2 as homework, let students know how to access the materials they need.
Teaching Notes and Tips
This unit can occur over two 50-minute class meetings with a break between Parts I and II, or as a single lab-type meeting.
Part I: Students will be assessed using the questions indicated as formative assessment questions above according to the
Part II: Students will be assessed using the concept map. The concept map can be assessed using the
Students' work will vary; however, we have included examples of concept maps:
References and Resources
Background information about climate science:
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Climate Change Web Page
- National Science Foundation, 2009, Introduction to Solving the Puzzle: Researching the Impacts of Climate Change Around the World
- Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN), Guide to Teaching Climate Literacy
- InTeGrate, Climate of Change module
- National Park Service, video about the importance of communicating climate science effectively
- Science Museum, London, Climate Science Info Zone, information and videos on climate change that are useful background resources for students and instructors
- The Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences, 2014, Climate Change: Evidence and Causes
- Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) Global Monitoring Division, Recent (last five years) monthly mean CO2 data from Mauna Loa
- ESRL Global Monitoring Division, Full Mauna Loa CO2 record