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Global Temperatures

Robert MacKay, SERC Starting Point and Columbia University Earth and Environmental Science Faculty

In this activity, students create graphs of real temperature data to analyze climate trends by analyzing 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. Students are prompted to determine the difficulties scientists face in using this data to make climate predictions.

Activity takes about two to three hours. Access to a computer lab is required.

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Measurements and Observations
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Grade Level

College Lower (13-14)
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College Upper (15-16)
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Most suitable for a college-level majors course or an audience that is comfortable with quantitative, computer-based activities. Could be used as a homework or lab assignment.

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Definition of climate and climatic regions
About Teaching Principle 4
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Climate change vs. climate variability and patterns
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Changes in climate is normal but varies over times/ space
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Global warming and especially arctic warming is recorded in natural geological and historic records
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Observations are the foundation for understanding the climate system
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Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
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C) Collecting information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:A) Processes that shape the Earth
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A) Processes that shape the Earth.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:C) Energy
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C) Energy.

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

  • It is recommended that educator do a dry run with the data first to understand it well.
  • It may be helpful to break the activities up with some in-class discussion instead of requiring the students to do all the activities at once. This will also likely increase student engagement in what could become a very monotonous set of assignments.

About the Science

  • The data only covers years until 2002. This can be updated by the educator by using GISS temperatures, which are available monthly.
  • CO2 plots in the activity are a bit out of date. Using more recent data is important to address the lesser trend since the late 1990s, and discussing long-term trends vs. natural variability that can affect climate over periods of several years.
  • Allows for comparison of several variables and time periods. Students assess climate trends on several time scales, including decadal, interannual, and seasonal.

About the Pedagogy

  • Students use real data to show long-term temperature trends based on scientific data.
  • Strong critical thinking questions based on data and graphs.
  • Complex, multi-step activity guides students through various types of data.
  • Educator will need to assist students through the spreadsheet process.
  • A guide to the data is not included, so educator needs to be comfortable and familiar with the data.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Requires familiarity with Excel.
  • Activity includes all links to data and maps.

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