Climate Change in the San Juan Mountains Curriculum

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Executive Summary

Mountain Studies Institute's Emily Olson and Fort Lewis College intern Rica Fulton worked alongside Catherine Naud of Columbia University, and researchers Imtiaz Rangwala and Jim Miller with funding from the National Science Foundation grants #1064281 and #1064326 to create a series of lesson plans on climate change in mountains, with a focus on the San Juans.  The lesson plans are based, in part, on their research on processes that can cause enhanced rates of future warming at higher elevations, such as in the San Juan Mountains and other mountain ecosystems. These lessons are created for high school students to fulfill the Colorado Earth Science Standard #4: Climate is the result of energy transfer among interactions of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and biosphere. This curriculum consists of four lessons including: Climate Change and Tourism in La Plata County, Climate and Energy Systems, Analyzing and Interpreting Climate Data, and Climate Change and Mountains.

These lessons contain many different activities, concepts, and teaching materials that can be used either in sequence or separately as stand-alone modules. For an overview of how "climate" addresses Colorado State Standards, visit Learn More About Climate. The Teacher Overview PowerPoints - Part One & Part Two provide background information about climate. To download the lessons, click on the title below.

Lesson 1: Climate Change and Tourism in La Plata County

This lesson addresses the direct effects of climate change on the recreational and economic sectors of the region that students identify with. Students have a variety of activities including reading an article from the Durango Herald (Resorts Grapple with Global Warming) addressing ski resorts and how they are planning to deal with climate change, watching a short movie Hotter, Drier, Colorado, and answering questions on both.  Students will then break into groups including different types of industries (snow sports, river sports, mountain sports, and destination sports) and discuss specific impacts from climate change and ways that the industry can adapt to changes. Overall, this lesson will give students a personal connection to impacts of climate change and allow them to comprehend how to overcome changes to everyday activities.

Lesson 1 Presentation & Handouts: Climate & Tourism PowerPoint, Credible Sources Handout, Reactions Recording Sheet

Lesson 2: Climate and Energy Budget 

This lesson addresses climate and the energy budget by examining specific topics such as the difference between weather and climate, factors that affect climate, and the greenhouse effect.   Activities involve factors that affect climate such as latitude, proximity to large bodies of water, proximity to mountain ranges, prevailing winds, elevation, ocean currents, and human modification of the land surface.  Students will also watch a video on the greenhouse effect and discuss CO2 emissions and human impacts. For homework, students will fill out a chart on the different greenhouse gases and their sources. Overall, this lesson will help students understand regional climates around the world.

Lesson 2 Handouts: Greenhouse Gases Terms & Definitions, Factors That Affect Climate Worksheet, NOAA Homework - Atmospheric Trace Gases Involved in Global Climate Change

Lesson 3: Analyzing and Interpreting Climate Data

The focus of this lesson is on understanding climate data with an emphasis on analyzing, interpreting, and recognizing climate trends.  Students will learn about different agencies involved in weather and climate observations such as NOAA and the SNOTEL system, as well as historical data.  The teacher will show the class a website from Colorado State University that has the highest quality weather stations in Colorado and will demonstrate how to gather long-term climate data from these stations. Students will have an in-depth homework assignment on analysis and interpretation of climate graphs as an extension of the climate data interpretation activity. This lesson will help students understand where climate data comes from and how it is used in monitoring climate change.

Lesson 3 Presentation & Handouts: Weather Station Data Power Point, Climate Interpretation & Analysis Worksheet

Lesson 4: Climate Change and Mountains 

Lesson 4 addresses specifically how climate change affects high-elevation ecosystems and why they are so vulnerable. Students will brainstorm why mountains are more susceptible to climate change, as well as the importance of mountain ecosystems to the surrounding areas. Teachers can introduce topics such as mountains being the headwaters for much of the world’s freshwater supply, being home to diverse ecosystems, snowmelt patterns, and other topics found in the attached background information. Students will learn about climate feedback loops as they pertain to mountains, such as the albedo and water vapor feedbacks. Dust on snow is a major contributor to early snow runoff, and students will learn about this topic through a dust-on-snow BINGO game. This game will include the teacher reading various aspects associated with dust-on-snow and the students will select on the BINGO board what they believe the answer is.  Overall, students will gain an understanding of processes that drive mountain ecosystems as well as their importance and vulnerability to climate change.

Lesson 4: Presentations & Handouts: Climate Feedbacks PowerPoint, Dust on Snow PowerPoint, Climate Research Review Homework, Dust on Snow Bingo Game

Pre and Post Assessments

Assessments are available in order to gauge what students understand about climate change and interrelated topics before the lesson sequence begins. The pre-assessment encompasses 13 questions taken from objectives from all of the lessons. The post-assessment consists of students creating a comprehensive report that incorporates concepts from all of the lessons into one report. The students will pick a specific town in the San Juan Mountains for which they will find weather station data to analyze trends, research specific climate change impacts in the region, and explain how climate change is affecting economic sectors of the area. The report should include any ideas for adaptations for the town to combat climate change. 

Pre and Post Assessment Tools: Unit Pre-Assessment, Unit Pre-Assessment Teacher Key, Unit Post-Assessment