Education and
Public Engagement
at the Lunar and Planetary Institute
Explore Earth's Climate

Earth Artistically Balanced

Overview

Teens depict the science behind Earth’s climate system as art after learning about the complexities of Earth’s climate, then categorizing the sources that influence climate, in this 90 minute activity.

What's the Point?

Materials

For the Facilitator

Each Group of 10 Teens

      OR

Supporting Media

Interactive Websites

Climate Kids:  NASA’s Eyes on the Earth
Children ages 8 to 13 may enjoy the information, games, and videos on this award-winning site.

Bill Nye's Climate Lab
Children ages 9 to 13 may enjoy the fun missions and activities — and learn about ways to save energy — on this interactive website.

National Geographic’s Global Warming Effects Map
This interactive world map shows likely effects due to global warming.

Videos

Climate Change, Wildlife & Wildlands
This video offers explanations on climate change and how it impacts wildlife and their habitats in the U.S. High-school students and climate professionals are feature. Appropriate for ages 14 and up.

The Carbon Crisis in 90 Seconds
NASA Earth Scientist Peter Griffith clearly and simply explains the difference between the “new” carbon that we eat every day and the “old” carbon that we burn as fossil fuels.

Young Voices for the Planet
Ages 11 and up may benefit from the information, ideas, and inspiration from watching other young people make a difference in the “Young Voices for the Planet” series of films. The website offers suggestions for replicating their efforts.

Preparation

Before the activity

Activity

Part 1. Discover the scientific understanding of climate science through an open discussion, and prepare to incorporate the concepts into artwork.

  1. Optional, but strongly recommended: Have a discussion with a climate scientist.
  2. Optional: Watch Climate Change, Wildlife & Wildlands.
  3. Summarize the factors that influence Earth’s climate – or perhaps invite a co-facilitating environmental science teacher to do so:
    • Most of Earth’s energy comes from the Sun, but the Sun alone would give Earth a global average temperature of –2°F (–19°C).
    • Earth’s warm global climate is created by a natural greenhouse effect, raising Earth’s actual average temperature to 57°F (14°C). Most of the Sun’s light passes through the atmosphere and warms the Earth’s surface.  The warmed land and oceans then emit infrared radiation. Some of this infrared radiation is absorbed by the heat-trapping gases (such as carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane) in the Earth’s atmosphere, preventing the energy from escaping into space.
    • Other factors help keep Earth’s temperatures balanced. Some types of clouds, volcanic particles, and white ice and snow reflect the Sun’s light back into space, cooling the Earth. Some living things use up carbon dioxide.
    • The addition of heat-trapping gases through human activities contributes to global warming beyond natural levels. 
      • Scientists are measuring an increase in the amount of CO2 and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.
      • Scientists have also been measuring Earth’s temperatures and they’ve found that the global average temperature has risen over 1°F in the last 100 years, the highest in the past 500 years (or perhaps in the past millennium.).
      • The scientific consensus is that the warming is due to heat-trapping gases emitted as a result of human activities.

Part 2. Determine what factors influence Earth’s climate.

  1. Hand out the Nature’s Balance Cards and have the teens sort them into groups, creating one pile of warming influences on Earth’s climate and another of cooling influences. Ask them to consider whether any of the influences are dependent on an influence depicted on another card.
  2. Hand out the Human Influences Cards and have the teens add these to the appropriate piles.
  3. Discuss the “cooling” and “warming” piles and why the teens placed each card in that pile.
    • Warming influences:
      • “Heat-trapping Clouds”
      • “Carbon Dioxide from Volcanos”
      • “Bacteria in Wetlands Releasing Gas”
      • “Darker Surfaces Like Oceans and Forests”
      • “Power Plants Burning Fossil Fuels to Make Electricity for Our Homes, Schools, and Stores”
      • “Heat-trapping Gases Released by Driving”
      • “Heat-trapping Gases Released in the Production of Food”
      • “Heat-trapping Gases Released in Making Our Lives Comfortable and Fun”
    • Cooling influences:
      • “Reflective Clouds”
      • “Reflective Snow and Ice”
      • “Reflective Volcanic Particles”
      • “Plants, Soil, and Oceans Taking Up Carbon”
    • Do we need heat-trapping gases? Yes, they trap the Sun’s energy and provide the warmth that makes life possible.
    • Are white, fluffy clouds more like a reflective sidewalk or energy-absorbing asphalt? White snow and ice? Light gray clouds of particles from volcanos? Reflective sidewalk.
    • Do we need cooling influences, like trees and ice and snow? Yes, they keep us from getting too hot.
    • Ice and snow act as a cooling influence. What will happen to them as the Earth’s temperatures warm? They will melt.

    Clouds can have a cooling or warming effect, depending on their height (and therefore, composition) in the atmosphere. Low- and mid-level clouds are thick and reflect sunlight. They are made up of tiny water droplets (and mid-level clouds also have tiny ice crystals), which are not particularly effective at absorbing energy. High-level clouds are made of ice crystals, which absorb more energy than water droplets. They are also thin and wispy, and they allow sunlight to pass through to reach Earth’s surface.

    Furthermore, clouds that occur during the day in the summer tend to have a cooling effect. Clouds occurring at night have a warming effect.


    Scientists are especially concerned about Earth’s polar regions, where there is a lot of ice and snow. Ice is melting at Earth’s poles and at high elevations and scientists are concerned about what the loss of that cooling influence will do to Earth’s temperature balance.

    • What are some warming influences that are caused by human activities? Power plants burning fossil fuels to make electricity; fertilizers, which are used to grow our food, breaking down into gas in the soil; cars and trucks burning gasoline; gas released by farm animals as they digest grass and grain.
    • What do we use power plants for? They generate the electricity we get through outlets at home, at school, and in stores. Electricity powers our lights, air conditioners, computers, and other appliances.
  4. Brainstorm actions that the teens are inspired to take to slow human contributions to climate change. Draw attention to the fact that while creating things like t-shirts and golf courses certainly has an impact on the overall balance of Earth’s climate, our driving habits and energy use as well as food production have a much greater impact. Activities such as “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” help in a small way, but it will take a concerted effort in changing how we use fossil fuels and grow our food to make progress. Point out that their mission during this activity is to engage their communities about this issue through art; they have the opportunity here to get the conversation going!
    • What changes can you make in your life to help improve the balance of climate influences?
    • Could you use less of the warming influences when you go home today? How? Turn off lights and computers when no one’s using them, walk, bike, or take public
      transportation — where it’s safe to do so —  or carpool instead of asking for a ride in the car.

Part 3. Design and construct a mobile-style work of art that represents Earth’s climate system. If teens are creating large-scale artwork, have them first sketch their ideas on paper and present them with the scientist present. Construct the artwork during a series of meetings, which may be held with or without the scientist present.  If the teens are creating small-scale art, combine steps 3 and 4 to include a critique of the finished product, rather than the paper sketch. Tell them that their three-dimensional models will depict the concepts explored through scientific computer simulations of climate.

  1. Challenge the teens to plan how to represent Earth’s complex climate system as art. If the teens are creating large-scale projects, be clear about the space limitations for display.
    • How will you depict Earth’s natural climate system, with the natural warming influences creating the balanced climate that existed up until about 100 years ago?
    • How will you incorporate human influences on climate?
    • What words and images can you use that all library visitors or your family could easily identify with?
    • What materials will you use to represent each of the influences on Earth’s climate? Can you identify second-hand items to create “recycled” artwork?
  2. Point out some examples of mobiles or other balances, such as
  3. Have each team or individual present a design to the group and remind everyone to provide constructive criticism as well as positive comments. Have the presenters detail what materials they will use and how they will arrange them. Remind them to consider that weights may be necessary to balance the mobile. Request that the scientist provide feedback about how the science is depicted.
    • Is Earth’s climate system accurately represented, with the different factors on the proper side of the balance?
    • Is the art engaging?
    • Do you think that parents or the community will understand the meaning behind the representation?
    • How will you demonstrate that humans have the creativity and resources to reduce our warming influences?
    • For large-scale projects, what ideas do you have for collecting the materials?

Part 4. Create, display, and celebrate the artwork!

    • How will you use your art to inspire your friends and family to help slow human contributions to climate change?

Conclusion

Congratulate the teens on their engaging creations and artistic depictions of complex science. Encourage them to discuss their artwork — and the climate science it represents — with friends and family. Leave them with a message of hope and action: their creativity is essential in combatting climate change!