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Modern CO2

Robert McCay, Clark College, Starting Point Collection, SERC

In this activity, students compare carbon dioxide (CO2) data from Mauna Loa Observatory, Barrow (Alaska), and the South Pole over the past 40 years to help them better understand what controls atmospheric carbon dioxide. This activity makes extensive use of Excel.

This activity takes about 3 hours.

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Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

mate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system
About Teaching Principle C
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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.
About Teaching Principle 5
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The overwhelming consensus of scientific studies on climate indicates that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the latter part of the 20th century is very likely due to human activities, primarily from increases in greenhouse gas concentrations resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.
About Teaching Principle 6
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Energy Literacy

Greenhouse gases affect energy flow through the Earth system.
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2.6 Greenhouse gases affect energy flow.
Physical processes on Earth are the result of energy flow through the Earth system.
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Physical processes on Earth are the result of energy flow .

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations
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G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
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C) Collecting information.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:E) Organizing information
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E) Organizing 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:2.4 Environment and Society:A) Human/environment interactions
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A) Human/environment interactions.

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.
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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

  • Smaller segments of this activity along with individual images or Quicktime animations could also be used for interactive lecture discussion.
  • Introducing basic ideas in class before the assignment will help students get started.
  • Questions are provided at the completion of this activity that facilitate a classroom discussion.
  • Based on IPCC 2001, it should be updated to current assessment (available at: http://www.ipcc.ch/).
  • Additional data available at http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/dv/data/index.php

About the Science

  • The activity makes use of real data from Mauna Loa, South Pole, and Barrow, AK.
  • Data set provided ends in 2002 but additional data can be downloaded from the Web (links provided to these data).
  • If data set is not updated to include years since 2002, the activity still demonstrates the scientific process and concepts, but adding more recent data is encouraged.
  • Comments from expert scientist: The is a lab activity which is aimed at underclassmen at the university level. It teaches them how to process data as well as synthesize it and draw conclusions by asking specific scientific questions. Resource has not been updated since 2007.

About the Pedagogy

  • The data on the step-by-step instructions linked from the activity sheet for tasks 7 and 8 refer to the IPCC 2001 report, so instructor may want to update these to include data from a more recent report (available at: http://www.ipcc.ch/). This is not necessary, as the concepts remain the same, but may be useful to make it more pertinent to students since the data is more up to date.
  • The data set goes to 2002, but more recent data can be found online and added to the Excel sheet (links provided to these data on the activity sheet).
  • For students unfamiliar with Excel, a link to an Excel tutorial is provided.
  • The Reference section provides a list of good resources for further exploration beyond the activity (including animations).
  • Comparing and contrasting data sets and data models is good; students really have to think when looking at multiple emission scenarios and trying to ascertain what causes differences and what could be extrapolated for 2100.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • The links to all three stations are currently broken and the animation required to do Task 2 is not currently available, but additional and more current data are available at the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory website: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/dv/data/index.php.

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