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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»

Climate Literacy

This Activity builds on the following concepts of Climate Literacy.

Click a topic below for supporting information, teaching ideas, and sample activities.

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 Content

  • 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
Entered the Collection: August 2012 Last Reviewed: May 2016

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