Teaching climate change with Earth system science modules: A fishy story

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Monday, 18 January 2010
Steve LaDochy, California State University, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA; and P. Ramirez, W. C. Patzert, and J. K. Willis

Handout (173.5 kB)

Climate change is a hot topic at schools and with the public. Several new courses and many educational activities are available to teachers and students of all grade levels. .However, not all new discoveries in climate research have reached the science education community. In particular, effective learning tools explaining the differences between recent natural and anthropogenic climate changes are scarce. For example, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is a main cause of natural climate variability spanning decades. While most educators are familiar with the shorter-temporal events impacting climate, El Niņo and La Niņa, very little has trickled into the climate change curriculum on the PDO.

We have developed two online educational modules, using an Earth system science approach, on the PDO and its role in climate change and variability. The first concentrates on the discovery of the PDO through records of salmon catch in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. We present the connection between salmon abundance in the North Pacific to changing sea surface temperature patterns associated with the PDO. The connection between sea surface temperatures and salmon abundance led to the discovery of the PDO. Our activity also lets students explore the role of salmon in the economy and culture of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The second module is based on the climate of southern California and how Pacific Ocean changes, such as the PDO and ENSO (El Niņo-Southern Oscillation), influence the regional climate variability. PDO and ENSO signals are evident in the long-term record of southern California's temperature and precipitation. Students are guided in the module to discover the relationships between Pacific Ocean conditions and southern California climate variability. The module also provides information establishing the relationship between climate change and variability and the state's water, energy, agriculture, wildfires and forestry, air quality and health issues. Both modules will be reviewed for inclusion on the ESSEA (Earth Systems Science Education Alliance) course module list. ESSEA is a NSF-funded organization dedicated to K-12 online Earth system science education.