Models in climate change research

About this Learning Activity


  • Climate change influences our lives.

  • Everyone can understand and DO science.


  • What are models and how are they used in climate change research?

NGSS themes addressed:

  • Practices- Developing models, communicating information

  • Cross-cutting concepts- Stability and change, Patterns, Cause and effect

  • Disciplinary core ideas- LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems; ESS2&3: Earth’s systems, Earth and Human Activity

Culturally-Responsive Curriculum Standards Addressed:

  • A. Integrity of cultural knowledge that students brings with them


1. Watch the Arctic and Earth SIGNs video on the right with Dr. Katie Spellman and guest scientist Dr. Nancy Fresco, expert on climate change models, to learn about what a model is and how it is used in climate change research.

2. Read the following article recently in the news around the country, and reflect on the questions following the article.

NEWS: Climate Change January 23, 2018 - 2:30 pm

2017 was second-warmest year on record: NASA

Five warmest years on record have all occurred since 2010


This map shows Earth’s average global temperature from 2013 to 2017, as compared to a baseline average from 1951 to 1980, according to an analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Yellows, oranges, and reds show regions warmer than the baseline. (IMAGE FROM NASA'S SCIENTIFIC VISUALIZATION STUDIO)

Global surface temperatures in 2017 were the second warmest on record, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration announced in a new report last week.That’s second only to 2016, currently the warmest year on record. The five warmest years on record have all taken place since 2010.

“Despite colder than average temperatures in any one part of the world, temperatures over the planet as a whole continue the rapid warming trend we’ve seen over the last 40 years,” Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in a statement Jan. 18. According to NASA, global temperatures in 2017 were about 0.9 degrees Celsius warmer than the 1951 to 1980 mean temperature used as a baseline, and are believed by scientists to be 95 per cent accurate.

Last year was also the third consecutive year when global temperatures were more than one degree C. above 19th-century levels. The warming trends are strongest in the Arctic, NASA said, contributing to 2017 also having the second-lowest sea ice extent on record. Global weather phenomena, like the cooling and warming effects of El Niño and La Niña, caused variations in 2017’s weather data, NASA said. But scientists added that if those variations were removed from the weather data, last year would have overtaken 2016 as the warmest year on record.

NASA’s announcement follows a separate study by the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proclaiming 2017 as the third-highest year on record since scientists began collecting global weather data in 1880.

The discrepancy between the two reports is due to the different methods used by the agencies to analyze temperature data, NASA said. According to the NOAA report, record high sea-surface temperatures contributed to last year producing the second-lowest ice extent in the Arctic since 1979. The lowest-ever sea ice extent was recorded in 2016.


Reflection questions:

1. Using what you learned from the models video, what general steps do you think they took to make the

model shown in the map above?

2. Why do you think the models used by NASA and NOAA gave different results? (How would the

different time periods collected by each agency affect the result? Is there anything else that might

affect the results?)

3. Do you think temperature data collected by your students could help improve global temperature

models? Why or why not?

Lesson written By Dr. Katie Spellman, University of Alaska Fairbanks International Arctic research Center. Funding for development of the Arctic and Earth SIGNs project materials is provided by NASA under Award No. NNX16AC52A. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It is one of the projects within the NASA Science Mission Directorate's Science Activation to further enable NASA science experts and content into the learning environment more effectively and efficiently with learners of all ages.