US Historical Climate: Excel Statistical

Activity and Starting Point page by R.M. MacKay. Clark College, Physics and Meteorology

This material was originally created for Starting Point:Introductory Geology
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.


In this intermediate Excel activity, students import US Historical Climate Network mean temperature data into Excel from a station of their choice. They are then guided through the activity on how to use Excel for statistical calculations, graphing, and linear trend estimates. The activity assumes some familiarity with Excel and graphing in Excel. (see resources below for introductory Excel suggestions)

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Learning Goals

Use Excel To:

  • Import US Historical Climate Network data
  • Calculate mean, variance, standard deviation, maximum, minimum, and trends estimates for temperature data at a station near your town.
  • Estimate statistical error in trend estimates
  • Calculate temperature anomalies
  • Use a running mean filter to smooth data
  • Graph temperature data, anomalies, and trend estimates.

Context for Use

Good activity for courses with climate change content and/or in which an instructor anticipates using basic statistics throughout the term.

Description and Teaching Materials

Figure 1. Monthly mean temperatures for Maximum (January) and Minimum (July) variability months for Vancouver, WA example. (click image to enlarge)
Figure 2. Annual mean temperature, least squares trend estimate, and smoothed data for Vancouver, WA example. (click image to enlarge)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity will take students about two hours to complete. Students unfamiliar with Excel should complete an introductory Excel activity (see resources) before working through this activity. Students should be able to work through this activity at home or in a computer lab will no supervision. Students more familiar with Excel can work through this activity more quickly.

Although this activity focuses on temperature data, precipitation data is also available at this USHCN site as a possible extension to this activity.


Grading the completed activity sheet provided can be used as an assessment of student understanding. The future success of students on other Excel related activities is also another useful assessment tool.

A link to an Excel Answers Document is provided above with several sheets representing different levels of completion for this activity. This can help instructors: assess student success for this activity; answer student questions that come up; and quickly familiarize themselves with the activity.

References and Resources

The World Population Activity I or Sea Floor Spreading Activity I are good Excel tutorial activities with geoscience content for students with no Excel experience. Other geoscience examples that use Excel are also available.

Global temperature data 1856-2000 (more info) from P. D. Jones,D. E. Parker,T. J. Osborn, and K. R. Briffa.

Global temperature data 1880-2003 (more info) NASA GISS surface temperature analysis.