Carbon Sinks: Modeling the future

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SWBAT use a model to explain how natural and anthropogenic activities impact the flow the carbon on Earth, summarize the results of energy choices on carbon emissions and report how energy choices may affect the environment.

Big Idea

Students use an online simulation to analyze the amount of carbon emissions given off by a set of energy choices and then report their findings out.

Getting Started

In this activity, students develop and run scenarios for future human emissions and future carbon sinks in the oceans and on the land. Running an applet allows them to simulate the impact on atmospheric CO2 and global mean temperature. The applet is part of the Carbon and Climate website at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. 

Since we are looking are large scale Earth systems interactions, using this simulation gives students the tools to manipulate and study the effects of changing different variables related to carbon emission.  While no model is ever perfect, this one does a nice job of connecting data analysis, visual thinking and modeling. 

Please be aware that answers to the first few questions are found by reading the information under each of the other tabs under the website banner. A few of my students had trouble figuring this out, so please be explicit with you students. 


  • Computers with internet access
  • Student worksheets


8 minutes

To set up the scenario for using the applet, students will be read a memo charging them to create new energy plan that will help to stop the demise of Earth. Begin by reading the memo below to the class. Then tell them they will be using on online simulation to determine different scenarios for carbon emissions.  



  1. Planet Earth needs to install additional energy sources to supplement their current coal fired power plants because at the current time they are not providing enough energy for Earth’s consumers.
  2. According to the Universal Galactic Governing Alliance, the final decision concerning the new, supplemental energy source that must be added cannot significantly increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
  3. The Planetary Earth Governing Council has done the preliminary research and has narrowed down the additional energy source options to the following choices:
    • adding an additional coal fired power plant.
    • adding a wood burning power plant
    • adding a wind turbine farm
  4. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to analyze the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that would be given off from each energy option being considered.


Explore Part 1

30 minutes
  1. Students go to the University of Wisconsin Carbon and Climate website:
  2. Students complete the worksheet while interacting with the website and applet. They will need a “working” understanding of this material to complete the simulation to follow.
  3. Explain to your students that they will be involved with a simulation. 




These activities are based on the work of Jeanine Gelhaus (Medford Middle School,Medford, WI) in collaboration with Galen McKinley (University of Wisconsin Madison)  Copyright 2011    


Explore Part 2

30 minutes



  • Give students the Dilemmas. They will then analyze the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that would be given off from each new energy option being considered.
  • Each team must utilize the graphs and the materials found in the software package to analyze these options. The software package is found at the Applet Tab of the Carbon and Climate website. 
  • Students must present their findings and final recommendations to the Universal Galactic Governing Alliance. These finding must include the impact on climate for each of the above options. Encourage students to use display data (graphs, charts) and other props in their presentation.

Below are samples of student measurements taken from the applet for each dilemma. 




30 minutes


This lesson contains lots of chunks of information that students must synthesize in order to see the bigger picture of whats going on. In the visible thinking strategy below, you will help students make connections and think about the word around them. 

The objective is to get students to connect new ideas to those they already know and then reflect on how their thinking is changing as a result of completing the simulation. You are pushing their thinking and building the bridge from classroom experience to real world issues. 


Review how the simulation connects to the current study of climate change and in particular to carbon sinks and sources. 

Ask them how the results of the simulation connect back to changes in Earth's atmosphere that they have studied and that they already knew. Give them time to think and write. "How did today's simulation connect to what you know?" 

Next, ask them identify how their ideas have expanded in some way as a result of the simulation. Agin, give them time to think and write. "How has your thinking been extended, gone deeper or focused in a new way?"

Finally, ask them what was challenging about the activity. Give them time to think and write."What challenges or puzzles have come up in your mind about this topic? 

Once they have completed their reflections, ask them to turn and talk with a neighbor and share their thinking. Push them to rive reasons for their thinking. As they talk, move around the room and listen, coaching conversations where needed. If you like you could collect bit is information that  you hear to share back to the class or you could ask students to display their ideas on chart paper. 

It is important that you listen and look for the connections and extensions that your students share. Making a list if these for your own reflection and assessment of student learning and whether or not your students are getting what you expect them to out of the lesson is key here. 

If this is your first time with routine, give yourself plenty of time to develop the habits. Model for the students what this should look/sound/feel like. 

Adapted from Making Thinking Visible; Ritchart, Church, Morrison, 2011