Environmental Science – Earth Science

Teachers in Environmental Science and Earth Science already cover climate change, but connecting with teachers in other subject areas can deepen and enrich what you teach. And doing an actual GHG inventory can add hands-on learning experiences that help to raise students’ awareness.

In some districts, there may be a tendency to present global warming and climate change in a series of separate topics. We think it is important to take an ecological system approach, where the various elements are interactive and interdependent—and that systems thinking is critical in exploring environmental science and sustainability.

In environmental science, we often need both a general understanding and specific analysis, so to really understand problems. Would these sample questions help start or deepen discussion in your classes?

  • In what ways is the ‘greenhouse effect’ beneficial?
    (If out of balance in one direction, it creates global warming—but if it were out of balance in the other direction, the Earth would cool; if there were no greenhouse effect at all, temperatures might average about -20°C (-4°F).
  • When global warming causes arctic ice to melt, it reduces the albedo of a large area of the Earth’s surface.
    • Why is this called a feedback loop?
    • Can you think of other examples of feedback loops?
  • Outside factors often affect natural processes, but when the effect goes beyond a certain threshold—the tipping point—it can cause a sudden change to a new state.
    • Permafrost is a critical carbon sink. What happens as global warming melts the permafrost and releases stored carbon in the form of methane and carbon dioxide? Is this an example of a feedback loop? Is there a tipping point where it triggers sudden climate change?
    • Massive currents like the ‘Gulf Stream’ and ‘North Atlantic Drift’ arise as warm, salty water flows north from the tropical zones and keeps the British Isles and Scandinavia 10–15°C (18–27°F) warmer than would otherwise be expected at such high latitudes. If sea and land ice continue to melt, what effect will millions of gallons of cold meltwater have on ocean currents and on living conditions in northern Europe?
  • How does movement in the Earth’s crust (plate tectonics) affect global warming, either directly or indirectly?
  • When we try to achieve the sustainability of human societies and communities, we are often misled by approaches that look promising in the short term—but may have damaging long-term effects (unintended consequences). For example, when fossil fuels were discovered and developed, they promised a relatively inexpensive supply of energy. It took over a century for people to begin to understand that use of fossil fuels was causing an increase in atmospheric CO2 and global warming.
  • It might have been possible to foresee some of the impacts with a comprehensive life cycle analysis, if people had tried to work in harmony with natural systems instead of viewing nature as made up of resources that were there to serve human needs.
  • A general or ‘big picture’ understanding helps when exploring solutions, but some problems may also have to be quantified. For example:
    • What is the volume of ice in the Greenland ice sheet in cubic kilometers (km3)?
    • If the ice sheet melts, how much will that volume of water raise world sea levels?

Big Ideas

  • Earth and its many, diverse environments, are dynamic systems where components interact with each another and with living beings in complex ways.
  • Viewing ourselves as part of environmental systems rather than as standing apart from them could result in different choices about how to live on planet Earth.
  • Actions that seem very positive can have damaging long-term impacts.

Additional Resources for Environmental Science

Resources on the metric system are found on the Metric System (System Internationale) page.

Also see Resources That Apply To Many Subject Areas and Teacher-Recommended Readings for Students.