Education Outreach Program


Unit 4: How are Earth’s spheres and climate interrelated?

The Earth system is complex. The atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere all play roles in capturing, releasing, and transforming energy and matter in ways that impact, and are impacted by, the climate. What are some of the best ways to tease apart these complexities so that learners can make meaning of them?

Workshop attendees engaged in classroom activityLearning Objectives:

  1. Give examples of how the Sun, oceans, atmosphere, biosphere, and landforms interact to generate wind, ocean currents, temperature profiles, and precipitation patterns.
  2. Recognize how the greenhouse effect is affected by multiple components of the Earth, particularly through the carbon and water cycles.
  3. Understand how complex interactions among components of the Earth's system can generate non-linearities (feedback loops, tipping points, abrupt change, and lag times) in the climate system.  Data and models have vastly improved our understanding of non-linearities over the last five to ten years.

This unit most closely relates with Climate is regulated by complex interactions (Climate Literacy Principle 2,) and Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate (Climate Literacy Principle 3.) Also see How to Teach Principle 2 and Principle 3 from CLEAN.

Non-linear climate behavior

The Earth system contains many feedback loops. Small changes--like a subtle change of temperature that can freeze or melt water--can have significant effects that are not directly proportional to the cause.

The above animation depicts a ball moving from one stable state to another due to a forcing. In this example, gravity is the primary physical force maintaining the stable state. In climate systems, the physics involved is far more complex, but once a tipping point is reached, climate can change abruptly, as it has many times in the past. (From NOAA Paleo Perspective on Abrupt Climate Change.)

Non-linear climate behavior

Dr. Amy Wagner focuses on abrupt climate change and some possible impacts. Amy Wagner is a postdoctoral research scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  She is working on a paleoclimate modeling project of the 8.2 thousand years ago event at the NOAA Paleoclimate Branch.

ICEE: Non-linear climate behavior from CIRES Education & Outreach on Vimeo.

Amy Wagner – NOAA Paleoclimatology Program [PDF]


CLEAN collectionOcean Currents and Sea Surface Temperature from NASA.

In this classroom activity, students access sea surface temperature and wind speed data from a NASA site, plot data, compare data, and draw conclusions about surface current and sea surface temperature and link their gained understanding to concerns about global climate change.

Activity takes one to two class periods. Computer access is necessary for students.


Clouds can play a role in both warming and cooling the Earth's surface and related non-linear feedbacks. NASA's S'COOL student data collection project is a treasure trove of high quality teacher resources and materials for observing clouds and understanding their dynamics.

Pedagogy Corner: Curriculum Development and Implementation

Master teacher Cheryl Manning shares some of her insights into engaging learners in the complexities of climate science.

ICEE: Climate Science Curriculum Development and Integration from CIRES Education & Outreach on Vimeo.


Cheryl Manning – CIRES Science Educator Consultant [PowerPoint]