Global Warming and the Carbon Cycle 

Is Global Warming real? What impact do increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere have on our climate? To investigate these questions, twenty-three students from Lola Piper's freshman computer science class formed a Global Warming work group. Their goal was to use data about the carbon cycle to create a computer model which could then be used to predict changes in the future.

Their first task was to collect data about global temperatures and carbon in the atmosphere to see if there was any obvious relationship.

Global Temperature Changes in Degrees Celsius
Data courtesy of

Data courtesy of

The consistent upward trend in the global temperature data after 1970 correlated strongly with the Mauna Loa CO2 measurements so they investigated further. They learned that CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning have increased dramatically since the 1950's.

Data courtesy of

These data sets motivated the students to want to learn more about carbon and its role in life. They discovered that carbon is an essential building block of life that is continually moving through a cycle via a variety of processes.

Graphic courtesy of:

Using STELLA, a systems modeling tool, the students designed a simple model showing the major components of the carbon cycle and the processes of respiration, decomposition, and photosynthesis that move carbon to and from the atmosphere.

To make their model more realistic, they added rates of tree burning and tree planting, upwelling and downwelling of carbon in the oceans, and various changes in fossil fuel burning.

The students tested various scenarios with their model. When they assumed that we will continue to increase our use of fossil fuels, the carbon in the atmosphere increased similarly. On the other hand, assuming a reduction in fossil fuel emissions as called for in the Kyoto Protocol resulted in a leveling off of carbon in the atmosphere. In order to see a reduction in atmospheric carbon, it was necessary to reduce fossil fuel emissions to 1960 levels.

Four of the students were invited to Detroit in April 2006 to present their findings at the spring meeting of the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL) Sustainability Consortium. There they presented their model to a group of automobile executives who wanted to hear about student concerns for the future. Peter Senge, founding chairperson of SoL and senior lecturer at MIT, spoke to the group about the importance of systems thinking in planning for a sustainable future.

These same students presented their model to representatives from the Heinz Foundation in Pittsburgh. But, rather than traveling to Pittsburgh, the students used the Access Grid at the University of Maryland, College Park, to interact with their audience at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center. The photo below illustrates what participants from Access Nodes may see when they collaborate over the Access Grid.

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