EDUCATION: Climate Through the Ages

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Science  14 Jun 2002:
Vol. 296, Issue 5575, pp. 1935
DOI: 10.1126/science.296.5575.1935a

When you're up to your floorboards in floodwater, the weather next year or next century isn't very important. But climatologists have to take the long view to decipher past changes and predict the human impact on future climate. The Climate Time Line Information Tool introduces students and the public to the study of long-term patterns in temperature and precipitation, helping them understand issues such as the debate over global warming. “There are a lot of misunderstandings about climate change out there,” says site co-author Mark McCaffrey of the National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Using a powers-of-10 approach, the site explores variability on time scales ranging from daily to 100,000 years. Each unit describes scientific findings about climate variation at that scale and discusses how such changes might have influenced human history or evolution. For example, the 1000-year section considers whether a protracted drought in the Southwestern U.S. led to the demise of the Anasazi civilization about 700 years ago. Backgrounders cover topics such as the “paleo proxies” used to infer past climate, including ice cores and tree rings. The sections wrap up with a handy page of links and questions for further investigation. Students can also access data sets, like 30 years of weather records for major cities. The site is still under development, McCaffrey says, and he welcomes suggestions.

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