Winter and Global Warming

February clocked out as the coldest month in Buffalo history at 10.90 F. Besides the grumbling about dead car batteries, heating bills, and snow-clogged streets, there are the usual doubts about global warming. In this kind of scenario, how does one address the topic with your students? For starters, do not be dismissive of their qualms. Your students are applying their life experience to reject the concept of global warming. As a teacher, you must utilize your student’s life experience to understand the concept that temperatures are rising globally even while they are shivering on the way to school locally.

The first step is to have a discussion session. The goals of this discussion should be two-fold. One is to expand the student’s perspective beyond a regional basis. Ask the students if they have ever vacationed in Florida during the Spring break. What other travel experiences have they had? Did they note a change in the weather when they traveled? It does not necessarily have to be very far. New York City and the East Coast can be significantly warmer than Buffalo, especially in the Spring.

The second set of questions in the discussion should be geared towards jarring your student’s memories to get a bigger picture on climate. In the case of Buffalo, students can be asked if they recall March of 2012. That month featured 8 days of 70 degree weather and 3 days over 80 degrees. When addressing the issue of climate change, it is important to pull your students out of the here and now. What is happening regionally cannot be extrapolated globally and what is happening now may very well be ephemeral in nature.

This sets the stage for an examination of weather vs. climate. Again, drawing upon a student’s interest may be helpful. If the student is a baseball fan, explain that a game box score is like weather and a batter’s career average is like climate. In the case of Derek Jeter, the 0 for 4’s, 2 for 5’s, 4 for 4’s that show up in the daily box scores is like weather. Jeter’s career average of .310 is like climate. One could take a look at Jeter’s game log from the 1999 season when he hit .349. Twenty-three times that year Jeter went 0-fer. Would one conclude from those games that Jeter was a poor hitter? Should one conclude from a few cold days the climate is not getting warmer or is a larger sample required?

Following this prep work, now is the time to delve into some inquiry based learning. Teaching in Buffalo, I would have the students graph out average annual temperature from 1950 to 2014 and add a moving 5-year average to smooth out the noise. The result is below:

Buff Temp

It is very important to stress this chart does not prove or disprove global warming as the sample size is too small. It is only intended to familiarize the students with the nature of climate vs. weather.

Again, a follow-up discussion with the class is required. What is the average annual temperature in Buffalo? What is the difference between the mean temperature and highest and lowest annual temperature? If the climate were to warm more than 40 F, how would that compare to the hottest year on record? How does 2014, which also featured a very cold winter, compare with other years on the chart? Is there a change in the variations in average temperature after 1980 and is that predicted at all by climate change theory?

Besides getting a feel for the nature of climate statistics, this exercise is intended to enable the class to discern between outliers and trends. Go back to the Jeter example; his 0-fers were outliers (unfortunately, for this Red Sox fan) and were not indicative of his overall hitting skills. This will come up time and time again as climate change contrarians make their case by using outliers. The most recent example is the expanding sea ice in Antarctica, which is a regional phenomenon as ice coverage is declining on the Antarctic continent, in the Arctic, and in mountain ranges around the globe.

At this point, the class should be prepared to deal with global climate. The NASA Climate Change website is an excellent resource for this (A word of caution, global temperatures use Celsius rather than Fahrenheit). The class can explore how the change in Buffalo matches or departs from global climate change. Does the post World War II dip in temperature match what happened globally? Why might that be the case? Does what happened after 1980 match? How about the brief dip in the early 1990’s? What might have caused that? Allow your students to construct their own knowledge of what is happening with the climate. The main objective for the teacher is to ensure the students are applying the Richard Feynman adage, nature will reveal itself to us as it is, not how we wish it to be.

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