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Carbon Cycle

NOAA/Earth System Research Laboratory

This activity from NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory introduces students to the scientific understanding of the greenhouse effect and the carbon cycle. The activity leads them through several interactive tasks to investigate recent trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Students analyze scientific data and use scientific reasoning to determine the causes responsible for these recent trends. By studying carbon cycle science in a visual and interactive manner, students can learn firsthand about the reasons behind our changing climate.

Activity takes about four 45-minute class periods or one 3-hour lab period.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 1 Performance Expectation, 1 Disciplinary Core Idea, 8 Cross Cutting Concepts, 9 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Greenhouse effect
About Teaching Principle 2
Other materials addressing 2c
Biogeochemical cycles of greenhouse gases / Carbon cycle
About Teaching Principle 2
Other materials addressing 2d

Energy Literacy

Environmental quality is impacted by energy choices.
Other materials addressing:
7.3 Environmental quality.
Humans transfer and transform energy from the environment into forms useful for human endeavors.
Other materials addressing:
4.1 Humans transfer and transform energy.
Movement of matter between reservoirs is driven by Earth's internal and external sources of energy.
Other materials addressing:
2.5 Energy moves between reservoirs.
Greenhouse gases affect energy flow through the Earth system.
Other materials addressing:
2.6 Greenhouse gases affect energy flow.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:B) Changes in matter
Other materials addressing:
B) Changes in matter.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:C) Energy
Other materials addressing:
C) Energy.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.2 The Living Environment:D) Flow of matter and energy
Other materials addressing:
D) Flow of matter and 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

  • Make a worksheet with the questions posed after each step of the task to give students a place to write their answers. Some students may need a similar worksheet for the Basics section.
  • Educators may want learners to begin with an exploration of the visualization http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/carbontracker/ to look for trends before they launch into the reading.
  • Different locations can be assigned to different groups to reduce the repetitiveness of the activity as described.
  • Video on "What's in the Air" about NOAA’s Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases group can help provide background on the program: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/education/intheair.html

About the Science

  • A very thorough look at actual data to explore the carbon cycle and trends in CO2 concentration at different sites.
  • Comment from expert scientist: The "Basics of the Carbon Cycle and the Greenhouse Effect" web page consists completely of facts introducing the reader to the carbon cycle and the main sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The activity itself uses primary data measured at various sites around the world and draws from the databases that I will be using myself in a couple of weeks for my own research. I think that this makes this activity very powerful as students get to work directly with the data. It also makes students compare data from various locations and makes them realize that there are seasonal cycles as well as long term trends. Students can use the knowledge they learned from the basics page to understand the observations.

About the Pedagogy

  • More structure may be necessary for some students when reading the Basics of Climate Science.
  • There is no space or opportunity to write the answers to the questions posed during the activity.
  • Tasks are clear and easy for students to follow; screen shots are helpful.
  • A long reading kicks off this activity but it is well done.
  • The visualization is strong and fairly ease to use. The directions given to learners are clear and should be easy to follow.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Easy for students to follow directions to find and analyze data.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

High School

Performance Expectations: 1

HS-ESS2-6: Develop a quantitative model to describe the cycling of carbon among the hydrosphere, atmosphere, geosphere, and biosphere.

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 1

HS-ESS2.D1:The foundation for Earth’s global climate systems is the electromagnetic radiation from the sun, as well as its reflection, absorption, storage, and redistribution among the atmosphere, ocean, and land systems, and this energy’s re-radiation into space.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 8

Patterns, Cause and effect, Scale, Proportion and Quantity, Energy and Matter, Stability and Change

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

HS-C2.2:Cause and effect relationships can be suggested and predicted for complex natural and human designed systems by examining what is known about smaller scale mechanisms within the system.

HS-C3.1:The significance of a phenomenon is dependent on the scale, proportion, and quantity at which it occurs.

HS-C5.1:The total amount of energy and matter in closed systems is conserved.

HS-C5.2:Changes of energy and matter in a system can be described in terms of energy and matter flows into, out of, and within that system.

HS-C5.3:Energy cannot be created or destroyed—only moves between one place and another place, between objects and/or fields, or between systems.

HS-C5.4: Energy drives the cycling of matter within and between systems.

HS-C7.1:Much of science deals with constructing explanations of how things change and how they remain stable.

Science and Engineering Practices: 9

Asking Questions and Defining Problems, Developing and Using Models, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Engaging in Argument from Evidence, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

HS-P1.2:ask questions that arise from examining models or a theory, to clarify and/or seek additional information and relationships.

HS-P2.4:Develop and/or use multiple types of models to provide mechanistic accounts and/or predict phenomena, and move flexibly between model types based on merits and limitations.

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

HS-P4.1:Analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims or determine an optimal design solution.

HS-P4.3:Consider limitations of data analysis (e.g., measurement error, sample selection) when analyzing and interpreting data

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-P6.4:Apply scientific reasoning, theory, and/or models to link evidence to the claims to assess the extent to which the reasoning and data support the explanation or conclusion.

HS-P7.4:Construct, use, and/or present an oral and written argument or counter-arguments based on data and evidence.

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.

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