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The Little Ice Age: Understanding Climate and Climate Change

Lisa Gardiner, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR)

This is a classroom activity about the forcing mechanisms for the most recent cold period: the Little Ice Age (1350-1850). Students receive data about tree ring records, solar activity, and volcanic eruptions during this time period. By comparing and contrasting time intervals when tree growth was at a minimum, solar activity was low, and major volcanic eruptions occurred, they draw conclusions about possible natural causes of climate change and identify factors that may indicate climate change.

Activity takes about one 45-minute class period.

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Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Sunlight warms the planet
About Teaching Principle 1
Other materials addressing 1a
Role of aerosols in climate system
About Teaching Principle 2
Other materials addressing 2e
Changes in climate is normal but varies over times/ space
About Teaching Principle 4
Other materials addressing 4d
Global warming and especially arctic warming is recorded in natural geological and historic records
About Teaching Principle 4
Other materials addressing 4e
Observations are the foundation for understanding the climate system
About Teaching Principle 5
Other materials addressing 5b

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:A) Processes that shape the Earth
Other materials addressing:
A) Processes that shape the Earth.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:C) Energy
Other materials addressing:
C) Energy.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy
Learn more about the Benchmarks

Scientific investigations usually involve the collection of relevant data, the use of logical reasoning, and the application of imagination in devising hypotheses and explanations to make sense of the collected data.
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The earth's climates have changed in the past, are currently changing, and are expected to change in the future, primarily due to changes in the amount of light reaching places on the earth and the composition of the atmosphere. The burning of fossil fuels in the last century has increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which has contributed to Earth's warming.
Explore the map of concepts related to this benchmark
Light and other electromagnetic waves can warm objects. How much an object's temperature increases depends on how intense the light striking its surface is, how long the light shines on the object, and how much of the light is absorbed.
Explore the map of concepts related to this benchmark

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Improving the assessment: Discussion is okay, but the student understanding of the key concepts of this activity should also be measured using a questionnaire or by letting them interpret other data sets that they have not yet seen.
  • The science background provided in the "Teachers Guide" could be used for students. If this is done, it would be important to have guiding questions to accompany the reading.
  • The Solar Activity graph is missing a units label on the left hand axis. Students need to be told that the data is in Watts per meter squared (W/m2)
  • Educators may want to note to students that the "tree growth" data is derived from measurements of tree rings.
  • It should be pointed out to students that the variations in tree growth is an indicator of climate change while the volcanic activity and sunspot activity are causes of climate change.

About the Science

  • Comparison of different forcing mechanisms (sunspots, volcanoes) with one indicator for climate variability (tree growth) will foster the student understanding of complex interactions in climate system.
  • References are missing for some of the data.
  • Some of the graphs are missing labels to say what the units being measured are. This is particularly a problem because the graphs contain two y-axes.
  • Great scientific approach to have students synthesize information from three different data sources to draw conclusions about climate change.
  • Comment from scientist: If the volcanic ash stays in the troposphere, precipitation "washes it out" and its effect on climate is negligible. Only volcanic material that reaches the stratosphere will make a difference in the albedo of the atmosphere and have an effect on the climate.

About the Pedagogy

  • Well designed activity with good guidance for educator
  • The "Teacher's Guide" is well written and provides good introductory background information for educators. However, educators probably need more in-depth information to handle various questions students may have. If the guide is not used, educators need to make sure that their students acquire this understanding in some other way.
  • Activity is a worksheet activity where students interpret data from graphs.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Very complete and directions are clear.

Related URLs These related sites were noted by our reviewers but have not been reviewed by CLEAN

This activity is part of a larger collection. The parent pages to this activity can be found under http://eo.ucar.edu/educators/ClimateDiscovery.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

MS-ESS2.D1: Weather and climate are influenced by interactions involving sunlight, the ocean, the atmosphere, ice, landforms, and living things. These interactions vary with latitude, altitude, and local and regional geography, all of which can affect oceanic and atmospheric flow patterns.

HS-ESS2.A3: 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.

Science and Engineering Practices

MS-P4.2: Use graphical displays (e.g., maps, charts, graphs, and/or tables) of large data sets to identify temporal and spatial relationships.

MS-P4.3: Distinguish between causal and correlational relationships in data.

MS-P4.4: Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena.

MS-P6.3: Construct a scientific explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from sources (including the students’ own experiments) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

MS-P8.2: Integrate qualitative and/or quantitative scientific and/or technical information in written text with that contained in media and visual displays to clarify claims and findings.

MS-P1.5: Ask questions that require sufficient and appropriate empirical evidence to answer.

HS-P1.6: Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the school laboratory, research facilities, or field (e.g., outdoor environment) with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on a model or theory.

HS-P3.5: Make directional hypotheses that specify what happens to a dependent variable when an independent variable is manipulated.

HS-P4.4: Compare and contrast various types of data sets (e.g., self-generated, archival) to examine consistency of measurements and observations.

HS-P5.2: Use mathematical, computational, and/or algorithmic representations of phenomena or design solutions to describe and/or support claims and/or explanations.

HS-P6.2: Construct and revise an explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from a variety of sources (including students’ own investigations, models, theories, simulations, peer review) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

HS-P8.2: Compare, integrate and evaluate sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a scientific question or solve a problem.

Cross-Cutting Concepts

MS-C7.3: Stability might be disturbed either by sudden events or gradual changes that accumulate over time.

MS-C1.4: Graphs, charts, and images can be used to identify patterns in data.

MS-C2.2: Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems.

HS-C1.4: Mathematical representations are needed to identify some patterns.

HS-C2.1: Empirical evidence is required to differentiate between cause and correlation and make claims about specific causes and effects.

HS-C7.3: Feedback (negative or positive) can stabilize or destabilize a system.

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