Abrupt Climate Change

What You Need

Abrupt Climate Change


To explore how scientific knowledge changes in the context of abrupt climate change.


This lesson focuses on a current issue in science in order to help students understand the process by which scientific knowledge is developed and refined. The goal of science is to advance human understanding of the natural world—and that sometimes means changing long-held views. According to recent studies, many students think that changes come mainly through facts and improved observational and measuring technology. However, they often do not make the distinction that advancements or changes can come from both new observations and reinterpreting old observations. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 332.)

Until a few years ago, it was believed that earth's climate changes gradually. But results from ice cores and other geologic records of past temperature changes indicate that this is not necessarily the case and that abrupt climate changes may be the norm rather than the exception. In this lesson, students will be introduced to some recent ideas about abrupt climate change. This will give them a glimpse into how scientific theories are formed and refined by new data.

During high school, students should understand that scientific experiments are actually tests of ideas—not just a matter of trying things out to see what happens. Sometimes students don't realize that evidence generated by a sound scientific experiment should be interpreted with the greatest care. The scientist cannot make subjective inferences about what occurs; rather he or she must be careful to apply the highest standard of traditional scientific logic when developing a theoretical argument. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 332.)


Begin this lesson by engaging students in a brief introduction or review of climate change. Students should use their Abrupt Climate Change student esheet to explore these resources:

After students have explored the resources, lead the class in a brief discussion using questions students have answered on their Abrupt Climate Change student sheet:

  • What is abrupt climate change?
  • Do you think that human activities can play a role in climate change?


Using the student esheet, students should continue their exploration of abrupt climate change. First, they should read passages from Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises. They should answer these questions on the student sheet that ask them to identify the issues facing scientists as they re-assess their ideas about how climates change and to explain how this represents a change in the way scientists thought about this issue:

  • What are the issues discussed in this report?
  • How does this represent a change in the way scientists think about climate change?

Next, they should read What is Paleoclimatology?, which will give them more information about the methods used by scientists to study climate. They should answer this question:

  • How do scientists study climate?

The article specifically discusses the four following methods: satellites, instrumental records, historical records, and proxy data. After students have read the online article, they should describe these four methods on their student sheet. Discuss these four methods with the class. Discuss not only the procedures used but also the types of data that each method provides and how they contribute to our understanding of climate change.


For the assessment, students should use the student esheet to guide them as they explore the article, Climate Change Research Draws Attention of Top National Panel. To assess student understanding of the ideas in this lesson, have students answer these questions on their student sheet after they have read this article:

  • Why did scientists travel to New Zealand?
  • What conclusions did they draw?
  • Do they completely understand what is going on yet? Why? Why not?

After students have prepared their written responses, discuss the questions with the class. Students should understand that the panel traveled to New Zealand in order to have a view of the glaciers in the Southern Hemisphere that produced the findings which prompted the panel discussion. While this was perhaps a symbolic gesture since it wasn't necessary for the panel to go to the research site in order to examine the findings, it is indicative of how important this research is in terms of how we look at climate change. It is important, as students discuss this topic, that they can relate it to the larger idea of how change takes place in the body of scientific knowledge and that the testing and acceptance of new ideas is all a part of the scientific enterprise.


Bookends on Ice: North-South Glaciers Offer Clues To Global Climate Change provides more information about recent research regarding abrupt climate change, specifically work done by the University of Cincinnati's geology professor Thomas Lowell.

Paleoclimatology Slides from NOAA provide background on a variety of paleoclimatology subjects, including Ice Ages, Tree Rings, Ice Cores, Coral Reefs, and much more.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks