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Vostok Ice Core: Excel (Mac or PC)

Stephanie Pfirman, Starting Point Collection, Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College

This activity with a lab report instructs students to solve and plot 160,000 years' worth of ice core data from the Vostok ice core using Excel or similar spreadsheets to analyze data. Students learn about ice cores and what they can tell us about past atmospheric conditions and the past atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and CH4.

Activity takes three to four hours (either homework assignment or lab activity.)

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 1 Performance Expectation, 3 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 8 Cross Cutting Concepts, 13 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Climate change vs. climate variability and patterns
About Teaching Principle 4
Other materials addressing 4c
Observations are the foundation for understanding the climate system
About Teaching Principle 5
Other materials addressing 5b

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations
Other materials addressing:
G) Drawing conclusions and developing explanations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
Other materials addressing:
C) Collecting information.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:E) Organizing information
Other materials addressing:
E) Organizing information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:A) Processes that shape the Earth
Other materials addressing:
A) Processes that shape the Earth.

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

  • Ideally, students would work in small groups (2-4) so that students less comfortable with data analysis can be paired with students more comfortable using Excel.
  • Review the equations used in the activity to advance students' knowledge of statistical analysis.
  • Final discussion on the implication of the data would be a great assessment where an educator could tie in discussions about relevance of the research to present-day climate change research.
  • The lab report is also an excellent assessment vehicle.

About the Science

  • Students analyze real ice core data over the last 160,000 years to determine climatic conditions, trends, and relevance to today's climate.
  • Current CO2 levels are reported as 373 parts per million (ppm) currently and need to be updated to approximately 393 ppm as of 2011. Likewise, methane levels are reported as 1700 parts per billion (ppb) and should be updated to 1800 ppb as of 2010.
  • Teachers should make it clear to students that this activity is only looking at 160,000 years of data from Vostok. Ice core data from the EPICA site now extends back in time over 600,000 years:http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/icecore/antarctica/domec/domec_epica_data.html
  • Comment from expert scientist: Students work with a variety of real data from the Vostok ice core. Data is explained, and students are encouraged to think about the importance of the data in the context of the larger climate picture. Background is provided for the Vostok ice core and climate records.

About the Pedagogy

  • Students and teachers need to be familiar with the use of Excel to complete the activity.
  • Teachers should walk students through the equations provided so that they are given an opportunity to understand the statistical analysis and formulas to a greater degree.
  • Encourage students not to be intimidated by the data but to engage in the steps within the activity little by little, which will build confidence.
  • Good questions prompt the students to truly understand the data they are analyzing.
  • The pre-activities suggested on the Point Share write-up are extraneous with little connection to an analysis of paleoclimatology data. Time spent directly reviewing the use of Excel in analyzing the Vostok ice core data is recommended instead of engaging students in extraneous unconnected content.
  • Teachers should work from the original activity on The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory link to avoid going back and forth between two write-ups unnecessarily.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Outdated Excel tutorials and help pages are offered in the activity. Educators should look for updated tutorials if necessary.
  • Links within the activity to current temperature data, and carbon dioxide and methane levels do not work. NOAA's Earth System Research Lab monitors this data, which can be accessed for 2010 here: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/aggi/
  • The World Data Center (WDC) link on the Starting Point page is also not working. You can get to the data by clicking on the Paleoclimatology link on the WDC site which can be found here: http://gcmd.gsfc.nasa.gov/KeywordSearch/Home.do?Portal=wdc&MetadataType=0

Related URLs These related sites were noted by our reviewers but have not been reviewed by CLEAN

Lab: Vostok Ice Core at The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: http://eesc.columbia.edu/courses/ees/climate/labs/vostok/. EPICA Ice Core Data: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/icecore/antarctica/domec/domec_epica_data.html

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

High School

Performance Expectations: 1

HS-ESS3-5: Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 3

HS-ESS2.A3:The geological record shows that changes to global and regional climate can be caused by interactions among changes in the sun’s energy output or Earth’s orbit, tectonic events, ocean circulation, volcanic activity, glaciers, vegetation, and human activities. These changes can occur on a variety of time scales from sudden (e.g., volcanic ash clouds) to intermediate (ice ages) to very long-term tectonic cycles.

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.

HS-ESS2.D4:Current models predict that, although future regional climate changes will be complex and varied, average global temperatures will continue to rise. The outcomes predicted by global climate models strongly depend on the amounts of human-generated greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere each year and by the ways in which these gases are absorbed by the ocean and biosphere.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 8

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

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

HS-C1.5:Empirical evidence is needed to identify patterns.

HS-C2.1:Empirical evidence is required to differentiate between cause and correlation and make claims about specific causes and effects.

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-C3.5:Algebraic thinking is used to examine scientific data and predict the effect of a change in one variable on another (e.g., linear growth vs. exponential growth).

HS-C4.3:Models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) can be used to simulate systems and interactions—including energy, matter, and information flows—within and between systems at different scales.

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-C7.2:Change and rates of change can be quantified and modeled over very short or very long periods of time. Some system changes are irreversible.

Science and Engineering Practices: 13

Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

HS-P3.4:Select appropriate tools to collect, record, analyze, and evaluate data.

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

HS-P3.6:Manipulate variables and collect data about a complex model of a proposed process or system to identify failure points or improve performance relative to criteria for success or other variables.

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-P4.2:Apply concepts of statistics and probability (including determining function fits to data, slope, intercept, and correlation coefficient for linear fits) to scientific and engineering questions and problems, using digital tools when feasible.

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

HS-P4.4:Compare and contrast various types of data sets (e.g., self-generated, archival) to examine consistency of measurements and observations.

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-P5.3:Apply techniques of algebra and functions to represent and solve scientific and engineering problems.

HS-P6.1:Make a quantitative and/or qualitative claim regarding the relationship between dependent and independent variables.

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-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.

HS-P8.5:Communicate scientific and/or technical information or ideas (e.g. about phenomena and/or the process of development and the design and performance of a proposed process or system) in multiple formats (i.e., orally, graphically, textually, mathematically).

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