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Atmosphere, Climate, Energy



Carbon dioxide has been increasing in the atmosphere, and the increase is attributed to human activity. These activities include industrialization, daily use of energy and fuel, and changes in land use. The scientific evidence indicates these activities are very likely the primary cause of the observed increase in Earth's average temperature since the mid-1900s, and the rising temperatures that are driving climate change. To cope with the changes, people of all nations will need to mitigate, innovate, and adapt. These concepts are summarized in the Take Aim at Climate Change video. All people contribute to increasing global carbon dioxide levels, from burning wood in Africa to driving to the grocery store in the United States. We each can make innovative choices or look at ways to mitigate our carbon dioxide output, reducing the rate of carbon dioxide increase.

While individual actions count at the local level, the actions of large groups of people will show results on a global scale. For example, during the 2008 Olympic Games held in Beijing, China, local officials took steps to improve air quality, including restricting traffic and temporarily closing factories. Analysis of data from NASA's Aura and Terra satellites showed a 50% reduction in the levels of nitrogen oxides and a 20% reduction in carbon monoxide levels in Beijing and eastern China. The major source of these atmospheric pollutants is the combustion of fossil fuels occurring primarily in cars, trucks, and power plants. Since these are also sources of carbon dioxide, it follows that carbon dioxide production also fell during this time, though it was not directly measured. This unintentional atmospheric experiment supports the idea that the actions of a large group of people, such as the population of Beijing, can produce a measurable change in the atmosphere. A significant point to keep in mind is that while the goal in Beijing was a short-term improvement in air quality, sustained reduction of carbon dioxide emissions will have longer-term consequences. But how can this be accomplished?

Cities are crucial to mitigating climate change, as half of the world's population currently lives in urban areas. According to ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability, in the year 2050 an estimated two-thirds of the world's population will reside in urban areas producing 75% of greenhouse gas emissions. NASA satellite studies provide evidence of urban growth. For example, Atlanta, Calgary, and Curibba, Brazil each grew in area by 25% from 1990-2000. Surprisingly, in terms of energy use per individual in urban areas of the United States is lower than the overall U.S. average. However, in developing countries such as China, individual energy use in urban areas is almost twice the China national average. However we count and wherever we look, changing the carbon use of cities has the potential to dramatically alter the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. But where should we start?

Nadine Unger, a NASA Scientist proposed that the best approach is not to focus on a specific gas, such as carbon dioxide. She suggested we focus on economic sectors where emission reductions would be most beneficial and provide the quickest return for improving the environment. Examples include animal husbandry, household biofuel, and transportation. In the short term transportation is the major source of carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants in our atmosphere especially in cities, as can be seen by examining data from the NASA AIRS program. Developing countries such as China are rapidly increasing the number of vehicles in use in large cities. Even developed countries show an increase in the use of transportation as populations continue to grow. As pointed out by Unger, it is in the transportation sector where we as individuals can make a world of difference in the short term.

As a start toward addressing the transportation sector, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) propose new standards for these types of trucks: combination tractors, heavy-duty pickups and vans, and vocational vehicles. For combination tractors, the agencies propose engine and vehicle standards that start in the 2014 model year and realize up to a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and fuel consumption by the 2018 model year. Hoping to show the benefit of these measures, NASA has asked your team to use an Earth system science analysis to demonstrate the impact.


Your team has been asked by NASA to carry out an atmospheric science investigation for developing a community-based strategy to reduce the human production of greenhouse gases for a major urban area near your location by improving air quality. Your plan should focus on the transportation sector. The investigation will require baseline information about the rate of increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide*, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide downwind from your location during each season from a recent year using MY NASA DATA, Giovanni or NASA's Eyes on the Earth sites. The proposed plan should include details on how individuals can reduce their carbon output,the goal for carbon reduction,images showing distribution and values of the gases downwind from your urban area, and which satellites should be tasked to collect information. The final document should also include an ESS analysis prior to the implementation of the plan and following implementation of the plan. A primer on accessing and using NASA data and tools is available here.

Your team has been asked by NASA to carry out an atmospheric science investigation that employs a community-based strategy to reduce the human production of greenhouse gases for a major urban area near your location by improving air quality. Download worldwide carbon dioxide* concentration data from NASA AIRS using My NASA Data, Giovanni, or NASA's Eyes on Earth. Identify two urban areas that are located in two different geographic regions. Develop community-based mitigation strategies in the transportation sector that are culturally and regionally appropriate, specify a reduction goal, funding needs, and how to achieve inclusive participation. As a key part of the analysis include baseline seasonal images of air quality gases and carbon dioxide. Estimate how these will change over a period of three years after full implementation of your plan. The final document should also include an ESS analysis prior to the implementation of the plan and following implementation of the plan. A primer on accessing and using NASA data and tools is available here.

*Special note on data related to carbon dioxide: While reducing carbon dioxide output is the ultimate goal, the data on carbon dioxide is difficult to interpret. Carbon dioxide mixes with other tropospheric gases and is driven by upper level winds, making a direct correlation between carbon dioxide and city location difficult to determine. You will observe this when you try the Metropolis game. Do not despair; carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide data are excellent proxy (i.e. stand in) data for carbon dioxide production since these are also byproducts of combustion and will be very useful in completing this task.


Date: 5/20/2011

Scenario Images:

A Tale of Two Cities
"Despite their cultural and geographic contrasts, Seattle and New York City share one thing in common -- both are using space-based data to plan for future climate change." Further details on the image can be found at "A Tale of Two Cities". Image: NASA

AIRS Data Map
"This image was created with data acquired by the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder, AIRS, during July 2008. The image shows large-scale patterns of carbon dioxide concentrations that are transported around the Earth by the general circulation of the atmosphere." Read a full description of the image in NASA Maps Shed Light on Carbon Dioxide's Global Nature. Image: NASA

Household carbon dioxide emissions
About half of a typical U.S. household's carbon dioxide emissions comes from driving their family cars. More on households emission sources. Image: Courtesy

Human Generated Carbon
"Every year human activity is responsible for releasing approximately 8 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere. One ton of carbon is equivalent to the weight of a small convertible sports car. So 8 billion tons of carbon would be synonymous to putting 8 billion sports cars into the atmosphere -- that would equal one ton of carbon or one sports car for every man, woman and child living on Earth today." Carbon and Cars animation. Image: NASA



Carbon Dioxide Controls Earth's Temperature (Cycle A)
The website provides detailed information about how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is related to the earth's temperature.


Clean Vehicles (Cycle A)
A primer on the types of air pollution produce by the fossil fuel-based transportation sector.


Driving to the Future: Can China -- and the World -- Afford 2 Billion Cars (Cycle A)
The article explores the impact of and ability of the Earth to have more cars on the road. The growth of the number of cars on the road is a major consideration for planning future city growth.


NASA AIRS (Atmospheric Infrared Sounder) is an instrument on board the Aqua satellite. It can detect atmospheric concentrations of ozone, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, and dust (see Composition on the AIRS website). While this global view does not permit pinpoint observations of major cities since the measurements are not at the surface level, it does provide an indication of the source regions and areas to focus mitigation efforts. While visualization of the data collected by AIRS is described on the site, you can see the data by using NASA's Eyes on Earth 3D and selecting the Aqua Satellite. This is an excellent site as it provides not only a view of the gases indicated, but also a short video clip explaining the visualization.

An additional item on the site, that would also make a worthwhile classroom investigation, is the game Metropolis that is accessed through Eyes on the Earth 3D.


The Greenhouse Effect (Cycle A)
The resource is a good kid-friendly website that gives the basic information about the greenhouse effect.


A Tale of Two Cities (Cycle B)
The article discusses how location and development of Seattle, Washington, and New York, New York, are approaching greenhouse gas reduction. The article also points out how data from NASA is being used in the decision making process


Climate Change - What You Can Do?! (Cycle B)
This article outlines steps you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.


Ecodriving (Cycle B)
There is ongoing research on how to not only save energy by moving to electric and hybird cars, areas that should be explored in the development of the scenario, but also efforts to improve fuel economy. The main link will take you to the Department of Energy/EPA website to look at ways of improving driving, but do not limit your search. There is work going on worldwide to reduce carbon emissions in the transportation sector - from road trains, to basic research on driving. A nice graphic comparing different modes of transportation is How far can I travel on 1 ton of carbon dioxide.


Road Transportation Emerges as Key Driver of Warming (Cycle B)
The article is based on the work of NASA scientist Nadine Unger. Unger proposed instead of tracking chemical species (e.g., aerosols, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, etc.) to mitigate global warming, that it would be better to track different economic sectors, such as transportation, power production, and agriculture amongst others. Her work identified the transportation sector as the one with the greatest potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the short term. In 2050, the focus should move to the power sector. The article is very insightful, and useful for planning mitigation strategies. A companion article that should also be examined is Transportation Pollution and Global Warming.


Is the Answer Blowing in the Wind (Cycle C)
An example of how how to build these modules. This one addresses alternative energy which could be a valuable resource for the Carbon City module.


Sample Investigations:


A Case Study of Local Trends in the Carbon Cycle - MY NASA DATA (Cycle A)
The activity is designed to investigate the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and chlorophyll-a measurements in a local watershed.
Difficulty: advanced


Climate Change: NASA's Eyes on the Earth (Cycle A)
The website is a rich collection of resources, some of which deal with mitigation, data, trends, and several interactive activities. The information here can support classroom presentations, student explorations, and possible investigations. You can also connect to Eyes on Earth 3D from this central location.
Difficulty: intermediate
Beginner: There are several links to materials appropriate for beginning students.

Advanced: There are several links to materials appropriate for advanced students.


Metropolis - A Seek and Find Carbon Dioxide Source Game (Cycle A)
Metropolis is a must do game! The game is accessed through the Eyes on the Earth 3D link. After your enter Eyes you will find a link to click to load the game. The purpose of the game is to observe a NASA AIRS image of carbon dioxide concentration on the Earth and rub out the image to locate the major cities of the world. The game establishes the connection between global distribution of large concentrations of carbon dioxide, cities, and the effect that the winds have on moving the carbon dioxide from the source region to other parts of the globe. The game clearly illustrates the role of cities and burning as major sources for carbon dioxide.
Difficulty: intermediate


Exploring Carbon Pathways Using NASA's NEO Site (Cycle B)
This is a chapter in the Earth Exploration Toolbook. Students Image J and NASA Earth Observations (NEO) satellite imagery to track carbon in the Earth system.
Difficulty: beginner


The Greenhouse Effect (Cycle B)
The activity is a straightforward investigation on interpreting data sources on greenhouse gases.
Difficulty: intermediate


A Case Study of Local Trends in the Carbon Cycle - MY NASA DATA (Cycle C)
Purpose: The activity is designed to investigate the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and chlorophyll-a measurements in a local watershed
Difficulty: advanced


Sustaining My Community with Renewable Energy - ESSEA Module (Cycle C)
The question posed by this module is what energy sources should a community use as it prepares for the future. One aspect of energy use in a community is transportation. The Sustaining My Community with Renewable Energy module could be used as a lead-in or follow-up to Carbon City.
Difficulty: intermediate
Advanced: The module includes a tasking option for advanced students.




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Systems, order, and organization
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Transfer of energy
      • Life Science (Std C)
        • Populations and ecosystems
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Abilities of technological design
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Personal health
        • Populations, resources, and environments
        • Risks and benefits
        • Science and technology in society
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Chemical reactions
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Abilities of technological design
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Personal and community health
        • Environmental quality
        • Natural and human-induced hazards
        • Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges
  • Mathematics
    Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2000 This set of Standards proposes the mathematics concepts that all students should have the opportunity to learn. Each of these ten Standards applies across all grades, prekindergarten through grade 12. Even though each of these ten Standards applies to all grades, emphases and expectations will vary both within and between the grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). For instance, the emphasis on number is greatest in prekindergarten through grade 2, and by grades 9-12, number receives less instructional attention. Also the total time for mathematical instruction will be divided differently according to particular needs in each grade band - for example, in the middle grades, the majority of instructional time would address algebra and geometry.
      Mathematics instructional programs should foster the development of number and operation sense so that all students—
      • understand numbers, ways of representing numbers, relationships among numbers, and number systems;
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to patterns, functions, symbols, and models so that all students—
      • understand various types of patterns and functional relationships;
      • use mathematical models and analyze change in both real and abstract contexts.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to geometry and spatial sense so that all students—
      • use visualization and spatial reasoning to solve problems both within and outside of mathematics.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to data analysis, statistics, and probability so that all students—
      • pose questions and collect, organize, and represent data to answer those questions;
      • interpret data using methods of exploratory data analysis;
      Mathematics instructional programs should use communication to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • organize and consolidate their mathematical thinking to communicate with others;
      Mathematics instructional programs should emphasize mathematical representations to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • create and use representations to organize, record, and communicate mathematical ideas;
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      The identities and lives of individuals and people are rooted in particular places and in those human constructs called regions. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical and human characteristics of places
      People are central to geography in that human activities help shape Earth’s surface, human settlements and structures are part of Earth’s surface, and humans compete for control of Earth’s surface. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth’s surface
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How human actions modify the physical environment
      • The changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students demonstrate a sound understanding of the nature and operation of technology systems.
      • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.
      • Students use telecommunications to collaborate, publish, and interact with peers, experts, and other audiences.
      • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
      • Students use technology tools to process data and report results.
      • Students evaluate and select new information resources and technological innovations based on the appropriateness for specific tasks.
      • Students use technology resources for solving problems and making informed decisions.
      • Students employ technology in the development of strategies for solving problems in the real world.
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