Using Models to Make Predictions

Using Models to Make Predictions

Students explore how solar radiation, Earth's surface and oceans, and greenhouse gases interact to cause global warming. They can change variables to determine how much greenhouse gas emissions might need to fall to mitigate the temperature increase.


7 - 12


Earth Science, Climatology


Development Climate Models

Development Climate Models.jpg

Skeptical Science image provided by Concord Consortium
Development Climate Models.jpg
Content Created by
The Concord Consortium

This activity is part of a sequence of activities in the What Is the Future of Earth's Climate? lesson. The activities work best if used in sequence.


Required Technology

  • Internet access: Required
  • Tech setup: 1 computer per classroom, 1 computer per learner, 1 computer per small group, Projector

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer lab
  • Media Center/ Library


  • Heterogeneous grouping
  • Homogeneous grouping
  • Large-group instruction
  • Small-group instruction


Students will:

  • explore the complex interrelationships between Earth's surface and oceans, greenhouse gases, and temperature
  • analyze the validity of climate models for predicting future climate conditions

Teaching Approach

  • Learning-for-use

Teaching Methods

  • Discussions
  • Multimedia instruction
  • Visual instruction
  • Writing

Skills Summary


Climate scientists use models to test their predictions about climate change. They test different scenarios by changing their inputs to the model and algorithms for how various factors interact with each other.

When scientists can accurately predict past climates with their inputs and algorithms, they can be more sure that their models will be able to correctly predict future climates. There are many different factors that can affect Earth's atmosphere and temperature, and scientists continually update their models to reflect as many of these interactions as they can.

Recommended Prior Activities


1. Activate students' prior knowledge about greenhouse gases and global warming.

Tell students they will be investigating how much greenhouse gas concentrations need to be reduced to prevent major warming of Earth's atmosphere. Review with students the interactions of greenhouse gases with radiation and temperature and Earth's surfaces and temperature. Ask:

  • How do greenhouse gases cause atmospheric warming? (Greenhouse gases absorb outgoing infrared radiation and re-emit it, trapping the heat energy in the atmosphere.)
  • How does the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affect the level of water vapor in the atmosphere? (When there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there will be more water vapor in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide increases temperatures, which leads to increased evaporation of water. This leads to more warming, and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as it is released from the oceans and more water vapor as more water evaporates. This is a positive feedback relationship.)
  • How does the color of Earth's surfaces affect temperature? (When the surface is light-colored, solar radiation is reflected, leading to less heating. When the surface is dark-colored, solar radiation is absorbed, leading to more heating.)
  • What is the relationship between water vapor and clouds? (When there is more water vapor, there are more clouds. The clouds can reflect solar radiation, leading to cooling, which can decrease the amount of water vapor in the air. This is a negative feedback relationship.)

2. Discuss the role of uncertainty in the scientific process.

Science is a process of learning how the world works and that scientists do not know the “right” answers when they start to investigate a question. Tell students they can see examples of scientists' uncertainty in climate forecasting.

Show the Global Temperature Change Graph from the 1995 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. Tell students that this graph shows several different models of forecast temperature changes. Ask: Why is there more variation (a wider spread) between the models at later dates than at closer dates? (There is more variation between the models at later dates than at closer dates because there is more variability in predicting the far future than in predicting the near future.)

Tell students that the ability to better predict near-term events occurs in hurricane and tropical storm forecasting as well. Project The Definition of the National Hurricane Center Track Forecast Cone and show students the “cone of uncertainty” around the track of the storm. Tell students that the cone shows the scientists' uncertainty in the track of the storm, just as the climate models show the scientists' uncertainty in how much Earth's temperature will change in the future.

Ask: When are scientists most confident in their predictions? (Scientists are most confident in their predictions when they have a lot of data. This is why the forecast for near-term events is better than forecasts of longer-term events, both in storm forecasting and in climate forecasting.)

Tell students they will be asked questions about the certainty of their predictions and that they will need to think about what scientific data are available as they assess their certainty with their answers. Encourage students to discuss the scientific evidence with each other to better assess their level of certainty with their predictions.

3. Discuss the role of systems in climate science.

Tell students that forecasting what will happen in Earth's climate system is a complicated process because there are many different interacting parts. Scientists think about how one part of the system can affect other parts of the system. Give students a simple example of a system, as described in the scenario below.

On an island, there is a population of foxes and a population of rabbits. The foxes prey on the rabbits. Ask:

  • When there are a lot of rabbits, what will happen to the fox population? (It will increase because there is an ample food supply.)
  • What happens to the fox population when they’ve eaten most of the rabbits? (The foxes will die of starvation as their food supply decreases.)
  • What happens to the amount of grass when the fox population is high? (The amount of grass will increase because there are fewer rabbits to eat the grass.)
  • If there is a drought and the grass doesn’t grow well, what will happen to the populations of foxes and rabbits? (The rabbit population will decrease because they have a lesser food supply. The fox population should also decrease as their food supply decreases.)

Humans introduce dogs to the island. The dogs compete with the foxes over the rabbit food supply. Ask: What will happen to the populations of foxes, rabbits, and grass after the dogs are introduced? (The foxes will decrease because they are sharing their food supply, the rabbits will decrease because they have more predators, and the grass will do well because of the lowered impact of the smaller rabbit population.)

Tell students that these simple cause-effect relationships can expand into more complex system relationships. Let students know they will be exploring cause-effect and system feedback relationships between carbon dioxide and water vapor in this activity. Ask students to think about how each piece of the system affects other pieces of the system.

4. Introduce and discuss the use of computational models.

Introduce the concept of computational models, and give students an example of a computational model that they may have seen, such as forecasting the weather. Project the NOAA Weather Forecast Model, which provides a good example of a computational model. Tell students that:

  • scientists use information about the past to build their climate models.
  • scientists test their climate models by using them to forecast past climates.
  • when scientists can accurately forecast past climates, they can be more confident about using their models to predict future climates.

5. Have students launch the Using Models to Make Predictions interactive.

Provide students with the link to the Using Models to Make Predictions interactive. Divide students into groups of two or three, with two being the ideal grouping to allow students to share a computer workstation. Tell students they will be working through a series of pages of models with questions related to the models. Ask students to work through the activity in their groups, discussing and responding to questions as they go.

NOTE: You can access the Answer Key for students' questions—and save students' data for online grading—through a free registration on the High-Adventure Science portal page.

Tell students this is Activity 6 of the lesson What Is The Future of Earth's Climate?

6. Have students discuss what they learned in the activity.

After students have completed the activity, bring the groups back together and lead a discussion focusing on these questions:

  • Are models necessary to understand climate change? (No. The basic cause of Earth's warming is understood without models, but the interactions are complex enough that models help in trying to fully understand all of the relationships between the components in Earth's climate system.)
  • How can you tell that the results from a climate model are valid? (When a climate model can accurately predict past climates, you can have more confidence in its ability to predict future climates. If the inputs to the model are good enough to predict the past, they should be enough to give a good indication of the future.)
  • In the Earth system model with human emissions slider (Model 8), how much of a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions was needed to keep the temperature from rising too much? (The model shows that a 50-75% decrease is necessary. There are many factors missing from this model though. It doesn't show the warming effect of clouds or ocean currents, which can affect global temperatures.)

Informal Assessment

1. Check students' comprehension by asking them the following questions:

  • What is the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and Earth's temperature?
  • Why does the temperature not decrease immediately after greenhouse gas emissions decline?
  • Why do scientists think the warming of the 20th century cannot be explained by natural variability?

2. Use the answer key to check students' answers on embedded assessments.

Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Science Education Standards

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy

  • Reading Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects 6-12: Key Ideas and Details, RST.11-12.3
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects 6-12: Key Ideas and Details, RST.6-8.3
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects 6-12: Key Ideas and Details, RST.9-10.3
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects 6-12: Key Ideas and Details, RST.11-12.1
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects 6-12: Craft and Structure, RST.11-12.4
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects 6-12: Craft and Structure, RST.6-8.4
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects 6-12: Key Ideas and Details, RST.9-10.1
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects 6-12: Craft and Structure, RST.9-10.4
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects 6-12: Key Ideas and Details, RST.6-8.1

ISTE Standards for Students (ISTE Standards*S)

  • Standard 3: Research and Information Fluency
  • Standard 4: Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making

Next Generation Science Standards

Tips & Modifications

Teacher Tips

To save your students' data for grading online, register your class for free at the High-Adventure Science portal page.


This activity may be used individually or in groups of two or three students. It may also be modified for a whole-class format. If using as a whole-class activity, use an LCD projector or interactive whiteboard to project the activity. Turn embedded questions into class discussions. Uncertainty items allow for classroom debates over the evidence.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Amy Pallant, Principal Investigator, The Concord Consortium, The Concord Consortium
Dr. Hee-Sun Lee, The Concord Consortium, The Concord Consortium
The Concord Consortium
Sarah Pryputniewicz, The Concord Consortium
Elaine Larson, National Geographic Society
The Concord Consortium
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
The Concord Consortium
Expert Reviewer
Dr. Mark Chandler, Associate Research Scientist, Goddard Institute for Space Sciences (GISS)/Center for Climate Systems Research (CCSR) at Columbia University, Columbia University
Last Updated

February 23, 2024

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources

National Science Foundation
The Concord Consortium