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Global Temperatures

The lab activity described here was created by Columbia University Earth and Environmental Science Faculty. This Starting Point page was organized by Robert MacKay, Clark College.

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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Students analyze the global temperature record from 1867 to the present. Long-term trends and shorter-term fluctuations are both evaluated. The data is examined for evidence of the impact of natural and anthropogenic climate forcing mechanisms on the global surface temperature variability

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Learning Goals

Introduce students to:

  • Natural climate variability (volcanoes, El Nino);
  • Climate trends;
  • Climate predictability;
  • Regional climate variations.
  • Teach students how to describe and interpret graphical information.
  • Explore the significance of global climate change patterns to a student's local region.
  • Introduce students to the difficulties encountered in trying to extrapolate recent temperature trends into the future, and the need for models to make reasoned predictions of temperature change.

Context for Use

This activity can be used as a homework assignment or lab activity in an introductory geoscience course with climate change content. Instructors can also use the global average temperature data and graphs for interactive lecture or other graphical analysis activities.

Teaching Materials

All material available at Globally-Averaged Temperature Lab Included are:

  • Data in tab delimited format;
  • Lab instructions and questions;
  • Link to how to describe graphs;
  • Link to how to write-up lab reports of this type;
  • Images of:
    • 2001 annual temperature anomaly relative to 1951 to 1980 mean;
    • 1991 annual temperature anomaly relative to 1951 to 1980 mean;
    • Regional trends in temperature for 1910-1945, 1946-1975, 1976-2000, and 1901-2000.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The activity assumes that students have seen how atmospheric CO2 concentrations have varied over the past century. See resources below for a image appropriate for a pre-lab discussion. A great feature of this lab activity is that many of the questions ask students to think about how their region fits into the overall scheme of things. This activity was written for students at Barnard College and Columbia University (both in New York City) but students could easily answer the location specific questions for their local region. Excel tip. Several times during this activity students are asked to plot graphs for different year of data. An easy way to change data ranges is to click right on the data point of the graph and then edit the series shown in the formula bar. For example, When clicking on the data points of the first plot of this activity changing SERIES(,avtemp.tsv!$O$7:$O$141,avtemp.tsv!$Q$7:$Q$141,1) to SERIES(,avtemp.tsv!$O$130:$O$141,avtemp.tsv!$Q$130:$Q$141,1) makes it very easy to change the plot from all years to the years 1990 to 2001.


Online teaching materials contain student activities that can help promote student learning. These activities can also be used to help assess student understanding of key idea and concepts.

References and Resources

Other relevant links include:

The graph below created by Robert MacKay can be useful when discussing global temperatures and global change.