Differences between climate and weather are confusing topics because scientists talk about the signs of global climate change and a warming world, but climate change is one of the few areas of scientific inquiry where we can’t rely on our senses alone to make sense of the world around us. Why? The spatial and temporal scales at which climate change can be differentiated from day-to-day variability in weather are at or beyond the limits of our experience. While we experience weather variability firsthand, recognizing climate change requires statistical analysis of data sets extending longer than our lifetime, and take place at scales far larger than what we can personally sample and experience.
In this section, you will have the ability to manipulate data sets and visualizations while plotting and identifying trends in the data. You will also look at graphs and maps in your region.
Data Activity: Is The Climate Changing in My Region?
These data activities are designed to assist you in understanding the difference between weather, climate, weather variability, and climate change. They are designed to demonstrate that we may not perceive climate change using our senses directly, but we notice the weather variability on a regular basis. It is the graphs, using various lines of evidence, and reconstructing long climate histories that allow us to recognize that what we are experiencing—weather variability—is embedded as features within a climate change record displayed through environmental measurements and observations over time.
Remember, data provides the backbone support of a STEM lesson and as you complete the following activities, you should think about how you may implement these data activities with your students.
Activity 1: Using Your Observations to Generate Hypotheses
Scientific investigations always begin with observations. Begin your exploration by reflecting on your thoughts and recording observations about your local weather.
How would you describe the weather where you live?
We often hear that winters were colder or had more snow in the past. Does it seem that it snows more now than when you were a child? Have the crocus come up earlier in recent years? Are flowering shrubs blooming earlier? Have you noticed any changes through the years?
Read the following hypotheses and decide on one that you would like to test.
- Historic data suggests that average temperatures in my region have not changed over the past two decades.
- Historic data suggests that average temperatures in my region have increased in recent decades.
- Historic data suggests that average temperatures in my region have decreased in recent decades.
Once you have decided on your hypothesis, you will test it by analyzing map-based scientific visualization, and looking at evidence of climate change for specific regions.
Activity 2: Examining the Historic Temperature Record as a Map-Based Scientific Visualization
Scientific visualizations are an important tool used to detect meaningful patterns in data that might not otherwise be readily apparent. In this activity, you will create a scientific visualization of global temperature trends for the period 1994-2008.
Go to Global Maps from GHCN Data from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) website. Select the input elements on the form as shown.
- Data Sources:
- Land: GISS analysis
- Ocean: Hadl/Reyn_v2
- Map Type: Trends
- Mean Period: Annual (Jan-Dec)
- Time Interval: 1994-2008
- Base Period: 1951-2008
- Smoothing Radius: 250km
- Projection type: regular
By selecting “Trends” as the Map Type, the tool will produce a map that shows net changes in temperature across the globe over the selected time-period.
Click “Make Map” and examine the global map and the zonal means plot generated from your entries. The global map displays trend data in degrees Celsius. Red areas, for example, have seen increases of between 2 and 4 degrees Celsius between 1994 and 2008.
Do you see patterns of distribution in the temperature trend data?Answer
Areas in northern latitudes have shown the greatest temperature increase from 1994-2008. Certain ocean areas have also shown an increase in temperatures over the same period, while other ocean areas have cooled.
Where do you see the greatest warming and cooling?Answer
Greatest warming has occurred in the northern latitudes (Arctic, northern North America and Eurasia) while cooling is seen in specific ocean areas.
How would you describe the temperature record from your region using the data from the global map and zonal means plot?
Does this data conform to your expectations?
Activity 3: Examining the Historic Temperature Anomaly Record as a Map-Based Scientific Visualization
Go back to Global Maps from GHCN Data from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) website. Select the input elements on the form as shown.
- Data Sources:
- Land: GISS analysis
- Ocean: Hadl/Reyn_v2
- Map Type: Anomalies
- Mean Period: Annual (Dec-Nov)
- Time Interval: 1994-2008
- Base Period: 1951-1980
- Smoothing Radius: 250km
- Projection type: regular
By selecting “Anomalies” as the Map Type, the tool will produce a map that shows net changes in temperature across the globe over the selected time period, compared to a previous time window (here 1951-1980). This map will then be able to show warmer and cooler temperatures in comparison with the control period.
Click “Make Map” and examine the global map and the zonal means plot generated from your entries.
Do you see any patterns in the data? Which regions experienced higher than normal temperatures for this time period? Which regions experienced lower than normal temperatures for this time period?Answer
The greatest rise in temperature over the period of record is found in the Arctic, the northern North American continent, and especially, Eurasia).
The Antarctic evidences a cooling trend over the same period. Most of the U.S has experienced a .5-1 degree Celsius increase in temperature from 1994-2008.
Locate where you live on the global map.
Has your region experienced any changes over the time period?
Do the data support your initial hypothesis about temperature trends in the region where you live?
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has developed a Climate Hot Map, which offers a new, interactive way to learn about the local consequences of global warming. Investigate the Climate Hot Map carefully to explore the evidence of climate change that includes heat waves, sea-level rise, flooding, melting glaciers, earlier spring arrival, coral reef bleaching, and the spread of disease. Click on “list hot spots” in the upper left and choose North America for specific information on various U.S. cities. What specific climate change effects are happening in your region? What are the impacts and solutions?
Activity 4: Using Graphs of Historical Temperature Data from the Region Where You Live
Maps provide a visual summary of information, but not all variability can be indicated on a map. For local and regional information you need to make sure that data on a map is representative of your region. The graph you will use in this activity was made using MY NASA DATA to obtain data records of temperatures in various regional areas of the United States.
Choose one of the regions below to see the historical temperature data:
- Seattle, WA
- Salem, OR
- Spokane, WA
- Boise, ID
- San Francisco, CA
- Las Vegas, NV
- Salt Lake City, UT
- Phoenix, AZ
- Albuquerque, NM
- Denver, CO
- Dallas, TX
- Mobile, AL
- Memphis, TN
- Bismarck, ND
- Topeka, KS
- Cedar Rapids, IA
- Grand Rapids, MN
- Atlanta, GA
- Jacksonville, FL
- Charlotte, NC
- Richmond, VA
- Washington D.C.
- Buffalo, NY
- Boston, MA
- Concord, NH
- Bangor, ME
Examine the graph for your region and answer the following questions.
Why does the graph oscillate up and down on a yearly basis?Answer
The yearly oscillating pattern reflects temperature variations through the seasons (seasonality).
Does the graph provide you with a sense of why it might be difficult for individuals to determine for themselves whether climate change is happening where they live?Answer
A change in average yearly temperature resulting from climate change is going to be much smaller than the variation in temperature that we experience even in a single day.
Does the data in the graph indicate that your regional area experienced the same trend in temperature as the surrounding region that you saw on the scientific visualizations in Activities 2 and 3?Answer
Local areas may have experienced a different local trend than the surrounding region. Remember that the scientific visualization is an averaged description of the area, and one grid square on the map (250 km) may contain several micro-regions with unique climatic properties.
How to Create Graphs of Historical Temperature Data
- Go to MY NASA DATA Live Access Server - Advanced.
- Click "Choose Dataset" in the top navigation.
- From the drop-down menu choose "Atmosphere."
- From the drop-down menu choose "Atmospheric Temperature."
- From the drop-down menu choose "Monthly Near-Surface Air Temperature (ISCCP)."
- A map will open with options in a left side-bar.
- Enter the latitude and longitude coordinates for your local area. (You can find the coordinates by going to WhatsMyGPS.com and entering your address.)
- Choose "Time Series" under Line Plots.
- Click "Update Plot" in the top navigation next to "Choose dataset" to see the graph for your local area.
Climate change involves significant changes in climate across the whole planet, but it does not always mean temperatures will get hotter. Some places may be hotter some of the time, but many locations may see more erratic and extreme weather, such as heavier rainfalls, more snow in certain areas, more intense storms such as hurricanes, periods of increased drought, or more frequent heat waves.
Read “What’s the Difference Between Weather and Climate?” and think how you would describe the climate and the weather in your local area. Then, view the video "The Difference Between Weather and Climate" from PBS LearningMedia™ for a visual explanation on how climate and weather are distinct, and why it matters. Notice how these resources explain how in most places, weather can change from minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and season-to-season. Climate, however, is the average of weather over time and space. An easy way to remember the difference is that climate is what you expect, like a very hot summer, and weather is what you get, like a hot day with sporadic thunderstorms.
The Law Dome in Antarctica is located where the snow accumulation is much higher than at the more famous ice core site in Antarctica, Vostok. More snow means a greater deposition rate, and as a result, there is more detail. Thus, the time scale for the Law Dome core is expanded and it provides more detailed information about recent climate change.
The longest continuous record of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (1958-present) comes from Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. In many ways the mountain is the ideal location for studying the atmosphere. Isolated in the Pacific, it is far from major sources of pollution. Its 11,000 foot, high-altitude, lava-coated flanks are free of plants and trees, whose cycles of photosynthesis and respiration affect carbon dioxide concentrations.
Do the different maps and graphs that you have examined so far in this module prove that the world is experiencing climate change?Answer
Weather records across a human generation cannot “prove” climate change is happening. You would need several 30-year sets of observations to begin to generate a reliable statistical description of a change in climate.
Weather data can provide evidence that can be analyzed within the context of Earth’s climate history. In the “Global Temperature (1880-2009) and CO2 (1000-2009)” graph, you can see that the past decade of warmer temperatures corresponds with a strong warming trend beginning in the 1800s.
This graph plots atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (ppm) from two sources: Law Dome (Antarctica) CO2 record and the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii since 1958, against the temperature anomaly record from 1880-2009. The carbon dioxide data from the two sources overlaps nicely, giving confidence that both are faithfully measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The GISS temperature data represents the temperature anomaly (difference) from the mean period from 1951-1980 you saw in Activity 3. When our modern records are examined in the context of Earth’s climate history, we can evaluate whether what we are seeing is expected variability in weather, or in fact can be attributed to a change in climate.
In winter of 2009, the east coast of the United States experienced cold temperatures and snowstorms that had not been seen in a generation. Does that show climate change is not occurring?Answer
Think about the difference between weather and climate. The data analysis activities provided evidence that (1) while average global temperatures have increased over the past decade, some regions experienced warming, others cooling, and still others experienced no change; (2) even within long-term warming trends, we see variability in weather that encompasses extremes of temperature in both directions). Therefore, the answer is no, this does not provide evidence that climate change is not happening. In fact, in some regions, increased precipitation (in the form or rain or snow) is a predictable consequence of a warming climate.
How might you use the data activities in this module with your students? What modifications or changes would you make to them?
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