Carbon Dioxide and the Carbon Cycle (HS) (ESS2 and ESS3)

Created by NASA Wavelength Last updated 8/1/2018

The resources in this list support student understanding of the importance of atmospheric carbon dioxide and its role in the carbon cycle.

This list supports the following national standards:
Next Generation Science Standards

Carbon dioxide and the carbon cycle are included under NGSS ESS2.D (Earth's Systems / Weather and Climate), and ESS3.D (Earth and Human Activity / Global Climate Change) at the high school level.
  • ClimateBits: Fast Carbon, Slow Carbon

    Video is narrated by NASA scientist Peter Griffith who explains fast and slow carbon cycling on Earth using the analogy of a banana as an example of fast, young carbon. A chunk of coal is an example of old, slow carbon. Carbon dioxide and vegetation on land seen from space by satellites show the annual cycle: as plants grow during spring and summer they draw carbon dioxide out of the air during photosynthesis. When they die or go dormant during winter, carbon dioxide levels rise in the atmosphere. Burning fast or slow carbon to generate power or heat releases black carbon, also called soot which can be seen from space.
    AAAS Benchmarks: 4C/H1
  • The Earth as a System (Grades 10-12)

    Explore: Students are introduced to the carbon cycle through discussion, modeling and a game. Students then complete activities and investigations on Greenhouse gasses. Lessons 1.1 and 1.2 lead students through creating a draft carbon cycle, playing a game to refine the draft, learn about the role of CO2 in climate warming, and interacting with a Excel-based climate change model. These exploratory activities will take about 4 class periods.
    AAAS Benchmarks: 4B/H9, 4C/H1, 8C/M11
  • Carbon Dioxide- Where Does it All Go?

    Explore: (Connections to Common Core-Math) Students use basic arithmetic skills to develop quantitative understanding of the fluxes in the carbon cycle the role of human activity in moving carbon from one reservoir to another, and changes in the residence time of carbon long sequestered in hydrocarbon deposits.
    AAAS Benchmarks: 2B/H3, 2C/M1, 4B/H4, 2B/H1
  • Fast and Slow Carbon

    Explain: This article from NASA's Earth Observatory addresses the idea of residence time in carbon reservoirs in more detail. As a reading assignment, the information can be used to refine the carbon cycle model the students built in the Explore section of this bundle, contextualizes the quantitative explorations in (Carbon Dioxide: Where does it all go?) as well as build understanding of some of the basic chemistry and physical processes that are taking place in the context of cycling carbon on our planet. Using this article, challenge students to describe the system model they created in the Earth as a System, Activity 1.1.
  • A Simple Model for Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

    Elaborate: (Connections to Common Core: Math) In this problem set, learners will create and use a differential equation of rate-of-change of atmospheric carbon dioxide. They will refer to the "Keeling Curve" graph and information on the sources and sinks of carbon on Earth to create the equation and apply it to answer a series of questions. Answer key is provided. Supports MP.4 Model with mathematics: HSN.Q.A.1 Use units as a way to understand problems and to guide the solution of multi-step problems; choose and interpret units consistently in formulas; choose and interpret the scale and the origin in graphs and data displays. HSN.Q.A.2 Define appropriate quantities for the purpose of descriptive modeling. (HS-ESS3-6)
    AAAS Benchmarks: 2B/H3, 2C/H2, 12B/H2, 2B/H1
  • What do you know about Carbon? Quiz

    Evaluate: Vital Signs of the Planet: Global Climate Change and Global Warming. Current news and data streams about global warming and climate change from NASA. Students can self-evaluate their knowledge by taking this quiz, or it can be projected in the classroom to generate discussion.