Explore Teaching Examples | Provide Feedback

The Modern Atmospheric CO2 Record

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.

Author Profile

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


Students compare carbon dioxide (CO2) data from Mauna Loa Observatory , Barrow (Alaska) , and the South Pole over the past 40 years to help them better understand what controls atmospheric (CO2). This activity makes extensive use of Excel.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

  • Become familiar with atmospheric CO2 fluctuations for three very different geographic locations (North pole, Tropics, and South Pole).
  • Better understand what processes control atmospheric CO2 concentrations on an annual basis at different latitudes.
  • Better understand what processes might explain the long-term trend in atmospheric CO2 concentration.
  • Use and discuss data in tabular and graphical formats.

Context for Use

Appropriate activity for an introductory course in Earth's Climate, Meteorology or Atmospheric Science, Earth Systems Science, or Environmental Science. Students are expected to use Excel spreadsheet program and the activity assumes some knowledge regarding the use of Excel. The activity does provide an Excel help link for students with no prior excel experience.

Teaching Materials

The Modern Atmospheric CO2 Record main page provides link to lab instructions, lab report format instructions, and Excel Help. The lab instructions also includes links to all required data along with other relevant resources. The sample images below compare atmospheric CO2 at Barrow (left) and South Pole (right).
[click either image to enlarge] 
Barrow CO2 from CDIAC South Pole CO2 from CDIAC  

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity can be used as a lab or as a homework assignment. It takes students approximately 3 hrs to complete. Smaller segments of this activity along with individual images or Quick time animations could also be used for interactive lecture discussion. Introducing basic ideas in class before the assignment is important to help students get started. Students questions related to the completion of this activity help build student interest in classroom discussion.


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

  • The Modern Atmospheric CO2 Record lab activity provides good documentation for references and additional reading.
  • For those interested, here is a CO2 concentration file with data ( 13kB Jan27 04) for Mauna Loa, South Pole, and Barrow through 2002. Tab delimited text.
  • For more current data than the file above, Trends in Carbon Dioxide, from NOAA, includes current information and CO2 data records from Mauna Loa. And all three stations have more up to date files linked from Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) or you can obtain the most current raw data files from the CDIAC FTP site (brw = Barrow; mlo = Mauna Loa; spo = South Pole).
  • Here's an animation of the annual cycle (January through December) in vegetation index ( 130kB Jan27 04) from NASA's Earth Observatory (more info) This can be used to help students understand the connection between CO2 fluctuations and the seasons.
  • Here's an animation of the annual cycle (January through December) in Sea WiFS Ocean Chlorophyll ( 218kB Jan27 04) from NASA's Earth Observatory (more info) This can also be used to help students understand the connection between CO2 fluctuations and the seasons.
  • Related activity: Carbon Dioxide Exercise, by Randy Richardson, involves students working in groups to plot carbon dioxide concentrations over time on overheads and to estimate the rate of change over five years. Stacked together, the overheads for the whole class show an increase on carbon dioxide over five years and annual variation driven by photosynthesis.

Chlorophyll from Sea WiFS