Teaching about our understanding of climate is supported by five key concepts:
a. The components and processes of Earth's climate system are subject to the same physical laws as the rest of the Universe. Therefore, the behavior of the climate system can be understood and predicted through careful, systematic study.
b. 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.
c. Observations, experiments, and theory are used to construct and refine computer models that represent the climate system and make predictions about its future behavior. Results from these models lead to better understanding of the linkages between the atmosphere-ocean system and climate conditions and inspire more observations and experiments. Over time, this iterative process will result in more reliable projections of future climate conditions.
d. Our understanding of climate differs in important ways from our understanding of weather. Climate scientists' ability to predict climate patterns months, years, or decades into the future is constrained by different limitations than those faced by meteorologists in forecasting weather days to weeks into the future.
e. Scientists have conducted extensive research on the fundamental characteristics of the climate system and their understanding will continue to improve. Current climate change projections are reliable enough to help humans evaluate potential decisions and actions in response to climate change.
Because of its policy implications, climate science tends to be challenged more than other types of science. But that does not refute the overwhelming amount of scientific knowledge we have gained on this topic. Studies repeatedly show that climate researchers virtually all agree that human activities are altering the climate system. Nonetheless, some portion of the general public is under the impression that scientists are still debating whether or not humans are changing the climate. In fact, climate science is one of the most rigorous examples of scientific inquiry, practiced over several decades by scientists all over the world, and from multiple scientific disciplines. As this research expands our understanding, Its basic findings have remained unchanged since the late 1950s.
Science is a formal process, with built-in integrity
Many people do not know how science is actually conducted. A good starting place is to describe the iterative process of scientific research: from the collection of observations, review of prior research, analysis of data, modeling of various scenarios, and communication of findings, Because so few people know an active scientist (let alone a climate scientist), and many researchers do not communicate their research to non-technical audiences, it is important to help learners understand some of the basics of the work of climate scientists. These concepts are not unique to climate science; all areas of scientific research share common themes such as:
- Data is collected through a wide range of tools and techniques.
- Data is rigorously checked for quality and accuracy. When scientists use the term "uncertainty," they do not mean that they are unclear in their understanding. Uncertainty is a mathematical term that expresses a range of measured values, rather than one specific pinpoint.
- Models are a set of mathematical equations that are developed by measuring known processes that operate on Earth. Models are compared to actual observations in a process called calibration. Climate models can reproduce the same variations we see in today's climate, purely by using mathematics. Only once a model is well-calibrated is it used to project future changes in climate.
- The process of peer review allows for transparency in methods, results, analysis, and conclusions. Data is made available such that any analysis can be repeated by other researchers. Published work is scrutinized by others who are knowledgeable in the details of that topic. Scientists share data, methods, and results with other scientists.
- Peer reviewed publications are an important part of the scientific research process. Even though these articles are usually very technical and often hard to understand by a non-expert, they still serve as the primary way that climate science is communicated.
- Scientific agencies such as NOAA, NASA, and the US Geological Survey are public institutions that serve the citizens by studying the Earth.
Helping students understand these ideas
Another hurdle is the perception that understanding science is overly challenging. Here, educators can take active steps to engage students in science. Students will experience for themselves that science can be fun, intuitive to understand, and relevant to everyday life.
Bringing these ideas into your classroom
- Make measurements of weather: temperature, rainfall, wind, snow, etc.
- Measure the temperature of different colored surfaces to explore albedo (the reflectiveness) of different materials.
- Use local meteorological data to answer questions.
- Compare local or measured data to other time periods or places.
- Measure energy use.
- Communicate findings to peers or the community.
Another tactic is for students to watch videos of engaging scientists at work. Climate scientists like Richard Alley (Earth: The Operators' Manual) and Katherine Hayhoe (Global Weirding) are masters of communicating climate science in an approachable, engaging style.
Teaching materials from the CLEAN collection
- Using a Very, Very Simple Climate Model in the Classroom - Through a simple online model, students learn about the relationship between these and learn about climate modeling while predicting temperature change over the 21st century.
- In the Global Climate Change and Sea Level Rise activity, students will practice the steps involved in a scientific investigation as they learn why ice formations on land (and not those on water) will cause a rise in sea level upon melting.
- Evidence of Ice-Free Seas and Reading Antarctica's Rock Cores are fun, hands-on activities where students make sediment cores and learn about past climate history.
- Students take part in hands-on data collection as they learn about Arctic science in the Arctic Climate Curriculum. This is a three-part suite of activities.
- Students can examine data from a widespread area to see if national data matches up with their own observations of their local climate. See the US Historical Climate: Excel Statistical.
- The video How Do Ice Cores Allow Researchers to Look at Global Change? features a PhD student explaining some of the methods of her work.
- Another video, Fastest Glacier portrays scientists studying the rapid retreat of the the Jakobshavn glacier in western Greenland.
- Whither Arctic Sea Ice? - This case study has students working side-by-side with a scientist from the National Snow and Ice Data Center and an Inuit community in Manitoba.
- Students learn how to use aerial photographs to assess the impact of extreme weather events in Aerial Photography and Mapping Lesson Plan: Images of Katrina.
Related Pedagogic Methods:
- Over 50 datasets of various Earth processes are stunningly displayed in NOAA's View Data Exploration Tool. This data viewing tool is highly engaging. Users select from atmosphere, ocean, land, cryosphere, and climate, and drill down from there into more detailed categories.
- Ice core data one of the foundations of our understanding of climate. Students can learn the basics from this visualization: Temperature from Ice Core Data
- Many activities from Earth Exploration Toolbook ADD LINK feature authentic data and analysis, such as Investigating Climate Change Using Observed Temperature Data.
- From Isotopes to Temperature: Working With A Temperature Equation - Oxygen isotopes of corals are a fundamentally important tool for reconstructing past climates. Students can try it themselves in this activity.
- Robert MacKay has written many excellent activities for learning about climate and climate models. This one, Mass Balance Model, offers a good way to jump into this topic. It could be followed up with Using a mass balance model to understand carbon dioxide and its connection to global warming.
- Working with large datasets is a key research skill. The Global Temperatures activity offers a way for students to look at global temperatures dating back to 1867.
Find activities and visuals for teaching this topic
The Real Process of Science is an updated, realistic replacement for the cookbook-style "scientific method." This interactive graphic from Berkeley highlights the cyclic process of scientific inquiry and advancement.
Process of Science - This web resource from VisionLearning contains 16 modules describing various aspects of scientific inquiry, data analysis, peer review, ethics and more.
The 97% consensus on global warming from Skeptical Science offers a summary of research that measures the amount of agreement in the climate science community.
Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, P. Doran, M. Zimmerman. EOS, Transactions American Geophysical Union, 2009, vol. 90, no. 3, p. 22, 200. This article compares the consensus views of scientists and the general public on climate change.
RealClimate - Read real-time discussions of emerging climate science and policy, written by climate scientists.
Scientist at Work - A blog from the New York Times that provides a glimpse of the many challenges of conducting research in Antarctica.