Mini Lesson/Activity

Air Temperatures Around the World: Student Activity

Mini Lesson

NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) provides monthly maps and graphs showcasing (nearly global) surface air temperature changes for each month since 1880 when meteorological stations were established around the world. GISTEMP is one of the main datasets scientists use to monitor monthly global and regional temperature variability and trends.

So how different are current temperatures from the past?  How much have these values changed over time? 

Students may access these GISTEMP maps to analyze the monthly anomalies of surface temperatures (land surface air temperatures) as compared to 1880, using 1951-1980 as the base period. Anomaly is a term that means how much above or below the temperatures are as compared to an average for a given time period. Temperature anomalies indicate how much warmer or colder it is than normal for a particular place and time. For the analysis, normal always means the average over the 30-year period 1951-1980 for that place and time of year.

Key Terms:

  • Anomalies: Difference between the mean temperature (°C) averaged over a specified mean period and time interval and the mean temperature during a given base period.
    • Example of an anomaly: The difference between average January temperatures during 2000-2020 and a base period of 1951-1980. 
  • Mean period: Any monthly, seasonal (3 months or 6 months) or annual mean. [January in example]
  • Time interval: Years over which temperatures are averaged or trends are found. [2000-2020 in example]
  • Base period: Time interval to which anomalies are relative. [1951-1980 in example]

The number at the top right-hand corner of the map plot is an estimate for the global mean of the calculated field.

Surface Temperature Global Anomaly

  1. What does surface air temperature anomaly mean?
  2. What is the range of values shown on the scale bar? What do those values mean?
  3. Where in the world do you find the highest and lowest values (the extremes) of the data in your images? Why do you think these locations experience these extremes and not other locations?
  4. Are any patterns in the data noticeable? Are patterns different at different zones of latitude? (Explain these patterns.)

Teacher Note

Teachers, these mini lessons/student activities are perfect "warm up" tasks that can be used as a hook, bellringer, exit slip, etc.

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  1. The link to the school/institution’s teacher directory where you are employed so we can verify that you are a teacher
  2. Ensure that the school email address is provided in your response as we are unable to send to personal email accounts

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