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Global warming-do 'the facts' stand up?

  • GCSE
  • Popular Activity
  • Topical

Type: Activity
Learning Strategy: Data work
Topic: Atmospheric pollution

Since its construction, the iconic 'hockey stick' graph has been used as strong evidence for catastrophic global warming. Other researchers have supported the findings. The results matter. Adding 1oC to the Earth's average temperature could set off a runaway greenhouse effect, according to NASA scientists. But are the results valid. Global warming sceptics have challenged the way the graph was assembled. In this activity, students interpret the graph, estimate when the Earth could be 1oC hotter, and defend challenges to their own conclusions.

14-16 How Science Works:
Pupils should be taught:
a. How scientific data can be collected and analysed.
b. How interpretation of data, using creative thought, provides evidence to test ideas and develop theories.

Published: 11th October 2006
Reviews & Comments: 14

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Learning objectives

Students will:
• Analyse and evaluate the evidence for global warming in the 'hockey stick' graph.

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AQA Core Science
Unit C1b Oils, Earth and Atmosphere: 12.6 What are the changes in the Earth and its atmosphere?
• Nowadays the release of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels increases the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Edexcel Core Science
Unit C1 b Topic 7: There's One Earth
• Explain how burning fossil fuels may lead to global warming
• Discuss how the composition of the Earth's atmosphere and its temperature have varied over different time scales
Gateway Core Science
Module B2 Understanding our environment: Item B2g: Population out of Control?
• Research to show the increase in levels of carbon dioxide in the past 200 years.
Twenty First Century Core Science
Module P2 Radiation and Life: P2.4 What is the evidence for global warming, why might it be occurring, and how serious a threat is it?
• Understand how burning fossil fuels in power stations and for transport pollutes the atmosphere with carbon dioxide.
• Use the carbon cycle to explain why for thousands of years the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere was approximately constant and that, during the past two hundred years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been steadily rising.

Running the activity

Possible starters:
• Make a list of effects of global warming
• Identify 'trends' on some simple graph outlines.
• Read the 'scare story' about ice melting (see web links).

Page 1 sets the scene. Page 2 gives pupils a clear copy of the 'hockey stick' graph as constructed by Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes. This is the main evidence used as confirmation of global warming. The text explains how the graph was constructed and asked students to pick out trends in the graph. Could the sharp upturn since 1850 be caused by rising concentrations of atmospheric CO2? There is an opportunity here to reinforce the idea that the correlation between the two does not prove that carbon dioxide is responsible for global warming. But carbon dioxide does absorb some heat and this would escape into outer space if it was not there.
Page 3 shows data from the last 150 years on an expanded scale. Students need to predict how the graph will continue and predict how long we have before the Earth gets another 1oC hotter and explain their reasoning. Page 4 is a set of cards which can be printed off, copied and cut out. They give arguments that could be used to dispute the validity of their conclusion. The activity might work best with groups of 3-6 students. The challenge cards should be shuffled and placed face down. The first student gives their prediction. Then the top challenge card is turned over. Another student presents the argument on the card and the original student defends their prediction. The activity continues until everyone in the group has presented their prediction. As a plenary students could consider whether the arguments have made them want to change their prediction.

Extension work could include research into how the 'proxy data' shown in black on the graph is collected from:
• Tree rings
• Corals
• Sea and lake sediments
• Ice cores

There is some dispute as to whether this provides valid, reliable evidence for global temperatures before thermometer readings were available.

The data used to construct the graph on page 3 is available to download as an Excel file. Able students could change the source data from the smoothed to the unsmoothed results to see how temperatures fluctuate. They could also try fitting trend lines to the data or find the rate of temperature change over different time spans.

Teachers Notes

David Griggs, Deputy Chief Scientist for the Met Office and Director of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, summarises the current situation as follows: the earth's climate is affected by so many complex processes that it is not feasible to look at past trends or use simple techniques to try and predict future climatic conditions. The only tools that are able to provide us with something close to a real estimate of future climate conditions are computer models that can take into account all the varying factors. Their best estimates are that global average surface temperature will rise by 1.4–5.8 degrees centigrade by 2100, a rate much larger than any observed changes during the 20th century and very likely without precedent in at least the last 10,000 years.

News links

'World warmest for 12,000 years' story – strong new evidence to support global warming.
'Backing for the hockey stick graph' – balanced article about the origins of the graph and the validity of further evidence.
New Scientist
Scare story about global warming.
New Scientist
Another scare story – could be used as a starter.
Graphical measurements of rising carbon dioxide that mirror the shape of the 'hockey stick' graph.
Choose rewriting science from the left-hand menu for this: Scott Pelly of CBS 60 minutes interviews NASA scientist James Hansen – very accessible to pupils. Obviously biased, but good pictures, graphs & sound bites. (Where will we go on holiday when most of Florida disappears – hope Mickey Mouse swims well – another displaced animal)?
University of Virginia
Article about Michael Mann (one of the scientists who constructed the hockey stick graph) and how he gathered data to draw his conclusions about global warming.
University of Saskatchewan
Sceptics' arguments.

Reviews & Comments

Write your online review to share your feedback and classroom tips with other teachers. How well does it work, how engaging is it, how did you use it, and how could it be improved?

Global warming- Science

Jun 15th, 2011

4 Star

This was a very good activity, its got to be done where there is a lot of space and with and able yr 8 group or a weaker yr 9 group. It really gets them thinking.

Reviewer: Natalia Anandanayagam


May 22nd, 2011

4 Star

Very useful resource. My students really enjoyed it and gained a lot from completing the task.

Reviewer: Janet Brewer


Mar 25th, 2011

5 Star

Reviewer: hellen lush

a life for a life

Apr 25th, 2010

4 Star

Great activity and really gets the students thinking! The slides on all the background (the science, the ethics etc) can be a bit "wordy", so I have replaced them with the first 20-30 mins of the film "My Sister's Keeper". The voting slips are excellent for the plenary.

Reviewer: maria mourelatou

global warming

Nov 7th, 2009

5 Star

I like the challenge cards - these are many comments that I have heard in the news over the years and it is useful to have them presented like this to use in class.

Reviewer: Kim Vale

Global warming-do 'the facts' stand up? review

Jun 2nd, 2009

5 Star

Excellent. Used as part of a research activity for a Y9 lesson on global warning. Students worked in groups and gave feedback for and against facts presented on global warming. Acitivity ran with video clips on the for and against human actiivties as main cause of global warming.

Reviewer: Rebecca Odoi

Global warming-do 'the facts' stand up? review

Apr 24th, 2009

4 Star

A great activity to get the students thinking

Reviewer: Friday Akpa

Biology GCSE re. Population and environmental change

Jan 29th, 2009

4 Star

I used the fact pages from this activity as well as others, like the day after tomorrow, as a resource for my students to gather ideas and facts. They watched the trailer of the day after tomorrow and we discussed what could actually cause this to happen and if events would be that extreme. Then we watched Obama's speech (Times website) and discussed why he was successful and how the speech empowered people/made them feel. My students then made their own speeches of 2 mins per pair to say (passionately) what they believe we should do to avoid such a terrible future, using the facts from the cards as well as other research. They were excellent and suddenly got all Martin Luther King with their dreams and enthusiasm!!! Their plenary was to listen to each other's speeches and vote for their overall solution. A very heated debate ensued and it was good to see them so enthusiastic about their ideas.

Reviewer: Jennifer Brice


Oct 21st, 2007

1 Star

Of course the lovely pictures and little cards are geat, and preparation burdened teachers are no doubt flocking to the any one asking whay ALL the cards are arguments against the relevance of CO2 as a warming agent?

it seems to me that this lesson has been designed by someone looking to completely anhilliate the idea that CO2 & warming are related. With the lack of experience that pupil have i should think very few will be able to sustain thier view (that abundent atmospheric CO2 is a bad thing) in the face of specious reasoning like 'plants will grow more quickly and absorb it all'

i find this particular preparation quite sinister, and far from encouraging fo any well balanced debate.

Hi Alex,

I'm interested to see that this reaction has provoked such a strong reaction. It is not designed to say that global warning is not a problem - just to make students aware that it is very difficult to make accurate predictions because there are so many variables involved - Ed.

Reviewer: Alex Taylor

Very useful

May 9th, 2007

5 Star

I will be incorporating this into my next rewrite of C21 module P2

Reviewer: Stephen Brian

global warming do facts stand up

Mar 27th, 2007

3 Star

Good ideas and help to introduce the sheet.

Pupils did enjoy the group work but did feel that there is really only one predictable date 2050!!!

Reviewer: emer mc dermott

Great for Edexcel board, Jan 29th, 2007

Jan 29th, 2007

5 Star

I tried his wth my upper set Chemists, who produced some great graphs and some great arguments for and against computer modelling - tied in really nicely with the syllabus.

Reviewer: Tina Coulthard


Nov 19th, 2006

5 Star

Worked very well with a middling ability year 11 (preparation for next year!) - they generated very different graphs and we had a good discussion about which ones were possible and why science might not be exact. Didn't use the data, but probably would with a more able class.

Reviewer: Simon Hepburn

excellent but have problems viewing the excel data

Oct 23rd, 2006

3 Star

Activity sheet looks exciting; however I was unable to download the excel temperature data.

Reviewer: Sally Zikri


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