Climate Summit: Changing climate? Will it snow?

Brief description

In this activity students compare recent climate data with long-term state averages to determine what this year’s snow season will look like and whether we are likely to continue getting snow in this changing climate.

Background for Teachers

For this lesson your students will read The Climate of Maine, about Maine’s climate, in averages, and then consider those averages in light of long-term and current data. Climate is the weather of a place averaged over a long period of time, usually 30 years. Climate variables such as temperature, precipitation (snowfall and rain combined or considered individually), number of sunny days, and amount of wind all factor into Maine’s climate. The latest climate averages (called “climate normals” by scientists) calculated and published for Maine were from 1981-2010.

From the NCDC site a definition of ‘climate normals’ (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/land-based-station-data/land-based-datasets/climate-normals/1981-2010-normals-data):

Meteorologists and climatologists regularly use Climate Normals for placing recent climate conditions into a historical context. NOAA's Climate Normals are commonly seen on local weather news segments for comparisons with the day's weather conditions. For example, a local meteorologist might say that today’s high temperature of 55 degrees is about 10 degrees below normal. In addition to weather and climate comparisons, Climate Normals are used in a variety of other fields. These include regulation of power companies, energy load forecasting, crop selection and planting times, construction planning, building design, and many others. 

In The Climate of Maine report for the students to read there are averages for many different climate indicators. It is often hard to put today’s weather (the short-term conditions outside) into the larger climate context. Your students will be collecting data about daily conditions which will help them think in the short term and about microclimates around the school, but will also help researchers understand larger climate patterns and trends. We cannot understand our climate unless we study different aspects of it over a long period of time. If your students ask about weather and climate and why fine-grained data (like snowpack data from different locations around a school yard) will help with understanding larger climate patterns try sharing this story (if your students are familiar with tides).

Jane Lubchenco, former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator and a professor of marine biology at Oregon State University, gave a talk at the University of Maine on September 25, 2013 and described trying to explain weather and climate this manner:  Watch several waves coming in. Can you tell whether the tide is coming in or out? Probably not and it’s not until we have a longer-term series of data that we can tell whether the tide is coming in or out. But without all of those data we cannot understand tides. Without small bits of data we cannot pull the larger picture into focus.

You can also share the Trend and Variation video (http://participatoryscience.org/video/trend-and-variation) on the participatoryscience website.

The report The Climate of Maine is an excellent primer to all of the climate conditions in Maine and goes into a great deal of detail about Maine’s climate.

There are several climate indicators given in the report that have relevance to the snowpack project, including:

Average daily temperature (Winter)

Greatest number of days with a minimum temperature of 0° F or less

Number of days between the first and last frost

Average monthly precipitation

Average seasonal snowfall

Average length of maximum snow cover

Average maximum snow depth

These numbers are all given as averages and do not speak to the great variability in data, especially weather data that makes up our climate. It is important for students to recognize variability in the data, as this will help them understand the variability in their own data once they begin collecting.

The students will use multiple lines of evidence—as scientists do—to determine the likelihood of snow this year and to discuss how the years since the last climate normal was determined (1981-2010) may have deviated from the average. Students complete the activity by holding a “Climate Summit” to discuss and compare their findings from the multiple approaches and lines of evidence.

After reading The Climate of Maine your students will read graphical data to determine how these climate conditions in Maine are changing relative to the 1981-2010 30-year climate normals , and whether they have changed through a longer period of time.

Note: In the activity we have also included data on lake ice out dates. These dates are not reported in the Climate of Maine but do tell an interesting climate story.

It is unlikely that the data will provide a clear story. However, your students should present data and their conclusions about the data to each other within the frame of following the questions:

  • How do the long-term data for this climate variable compare to the 30-year climate average in the Climate of Maine report?
  • How does variability appear to be changing through time?
  • What does the variability in the data suggest for this year’s snow season at your school?
  • What do the data suggest for future winters at your school?

Your students should prepare their presentation to cover the following four points:

  • Describe the graph ('What I have here is...')... just talk about the graph itself ("On the X-axis I have... on the Y axis I have, this symbol represents ___, and this symbol represents ___...")
  • Describe what the graph shows (just the facts) (“The graph shows that…”)
  • Describe what the graph tells you (interpreting the facts) (“What this tells me about…[here you may direct your students to talk about the long term data or the changing variability] )
  • What does the data suggest for this year’s snow season at your school?
  • What do the data suggest for future winters at your school?

(On this final note it is very important that the student groups point to trends in the data to back up their assertions, not what they think will happen because ‘Well, you know, climate change…’)

The report may be given as part of a series of brief slide shows (with the graphs featured on the slide), a presentation or a round-table discussion. In the end your students should decide, from the multiple lines of data, what this year’s and future year’s now seasons will look like.

Goals

Students understand that:

  • Climate must be defined by a combination of variables.
  • Climate data are variable.
  • Multiple lines of evidence are used to develop an understanding of climate (and potentially, climate change).

Outcomes

  • Students explain how climate variables may describe different aspects of climate.
  • Students state that no single variable can define climate.
  • Students use graphical data to understand Maine’s current climate, long-term climate and climate normals.

Where does this lesson happen in the Project?

This is the third lesson in the project.

Getting Ready

Ask your students to define weather and climate. Write all student definitions on a board. Decide upon classroom definitions of the two words.

Materials

Note: The climate data are from 1950 to present. The Climate of Maine averages are calculated from the thirty-year period covered by the report, not the period from 1950 to present.

Student Prerequisites

  • Students should be able to describe the four seasons in Maine. Be sure that students understand why we have seasons!
  • Students should understand the difference between climate (in short, what you expect) and weather (what you get).
  • Students must understand how to read a graph.

Time needed

Two class periods

Doing the Activity

Break the students into small groups. Give each group a copy of the worksheet.

Have all students read The Climate of Maine

Assign each group a climate variable – for example, snowfall group, temperature group, ice-out group, etc.

Instruct the groups that they will be reporting on their climate variable to the rest of the class in a climate summit. Explain that for their climate variable they will need to present to the class the following:

  • A description of the graph, just talk about the graph itself ("On the X-axis we have... on the Y axis we have, this symbol represents ___, and this symbol represents ___...")
  • A description of what the graph shows (“The graph shows that…”)
  • A description of what the graph tells (“What this tells us about [here you may direct your students to talk about the long term data or the changing variability, or both] is…)
  • What does the data suggest for this year’s snow season at your school?
  • What do the data suggest for future winters at your school?

Once students are done developing their discussion about their climate variable bring the class back together again.

  • Each group present their findings in a “Climate Summit”.
  • As a group, decide what this year’s snow forecast calls for, for your school.

Ask the group:

  1. How do all of these variables define the picture of Maine’s climate?
  2. Do we have a clear picture of the climate in Maine?
  3. What are some of the other variables given in the Climate of Maine that would help us understand Maine’s climate more?
  4. Can we understand climate by just looking at one variable?
  5. At a minimum how many variables do you think should be looked at when talking about climate and climate change?
  6. Do all of the small groups agree about the direction of changes in climate, or were some variables changing in different ways from the others (or not changing at all)?

Additionally

Students fill out the Student Question Worksheet to begin thinking about possible research ideas.

Assessment

Formative

Ask students to collectively list all of the variables they would need to study to understand climate, changes to climate and why they think those variables are important.

Summary

Ask students to present their work to a parent or member of the community.

Ask students to present their work to another class.

Lesson Extensions and Supplements

 

Details

Standards: 

Analyzing and interpreting data
Engaging in argument from evidence
Stability and change