Global Climate Models (Part 1)

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SWBAT analyze data generated from a global climate model to make predictions about future climate.

Big Idea

Students gain a first hand experience using climate models to make predictions as they analyze and interpret data.


5 minutes

Climate models are interesting and surprisingly complex. I recently took a course on climate change through the American Museum of Natural History Seminars on Science and the climate model portion was my favorite part. This lesson uses a small portion of that experience to give students a brief introduction to climate models and the scope of information that can be acquired from using them.

I begin the lesson by asking students to define "climate model" and develop a list of what they think they know (or can guess) about such a model.

In short, climate models are computer programs (mathematical models) that simulate how the climate has changed in the past and how it will change in the future.

While the Introducing Global Climate Models video is not something that is perfect for students, you could you pieces. It is very informative for providing you with background information on the data, how it is acquired, and about the Educational Global Monitoring Project.


30 minutes

Note: The EzGCM* is the climate model that I used in my climate change class. EzGCM Assignment 1 and EzGCM Assignment 2 are the directions that walk you through the process and provide you with the background you will need to be able to assist students. 

*If you are using a Mac, the last few generations of operating systems are not compatible with the EzGCM but there are workarounds. That information is found on the Columbia University Educational Global Climate Modeling Site. 

To begin using the model, you will first need to create an account. In the section that asks for institution, I labeled American Museum of Natural History and chose the only instructor listed to create a new account with no problems (and as the stated goal is to use this within classrooms I don't see why there would be any issues).  

I recommend working through both sets of directions to find the areas that you feel are most useful in meeting your goals.  As for this lesson, I focus more on the analysis of data from the model rather than the use of the model itself.

The activity:

My students have Chromebooks which will not run this Windows based software, so I use the LCD projector to show students how the climate model works.

I begin by following the instructions for step 2 on page 5 of the EzGCM Assignment 1 packet. After running the simulation, 4 graphs are generated for students to analyze. These graphs and the relevant reflection questions can be found on the ClimateModel-EzGCM (Student Analysis) worksheet.

I have students work in small groups to analyze the graphs and answer the questions. The goal is for students to begin to see the interactions between CO2 levels, surface air temperatures and ocean ice cover so they can begin to imagine how a post global warming Earth might be different from today's reality.

If time allows (and you have "real" computers), step 3 (page 8 of EzGCM Assignment 1) refers to the amount of time it takes for typical home computers to run a GCM simulation. Students determine a way to estimate the time it would take to complete the simulation and explain their process. While this is not critical information for achieving the end result (determining the impacts of climate change), it is a good exercise in problem solving and can lead to interesting discussions on the complex equations that these supercomputers must complete to produce these models which helps students develop SP5, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking.


5 minutes

To conclude this lesson I have students look closely at the data on any 2 of the 4 graphs on their worksheet and answer the questions for each graph:

  • What patterns do you see?
  • What does this graph tell you?
  • Who could use this data? How could they use it?
  • What questions does this graph cause you to wonder?