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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

Climate is determined by the long-term pattern of temperature and precipitation averages and extremes at a location. Climate descriptions can refer to areas that are local, regional, or global in extent. Climate can be described for different time intervals, such as decades, years, seasons, months, or specific dates of the year.
About Teaching Principle 4
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Climate change is a significant and persistent change in an area’s average climate conditions or their extremes. Seasonal variations and multi-year cycles (for example, the El Niño Southern Oscillation) that produce warm, cool, wet, or dry periods across different regions are a natural part of climate variability. They do not represent climate change.
About Teaching Principle 4
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Scientific observations indicate that global climate has changed in the past, is changing now, and will change in the future. The magnitude and direction of this change is not the same at all locations on Earth.
About Teaching Principle 4
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Based on evidence from tree rings, other natural records, and scientific observations made around the world, Earth’s average temperature is now warmer than it has been for at least the past 1,300 years. Average temperatures have increased markedly in the past 50 years, especially in the North Polar Region.
About Teaching Principle 4
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Environmental observations are the foundation for understanding the climate system. From the bottom of the ocean to the surface of the Sun, instruments on weather stations, buoys, satellites, and other platforms collect climate data. To learn about past climates, scientists use natural records, such as tree rings, ice cores, and sedimentary layers. Historical observations, such as native knowledge and personal journals, also document past climate change.
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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.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy
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The earth has a variety of climates, defined by average temperature, precipitation, humidity, air pressure, and wind, over time in a particular place.
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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.
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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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