Studying CO2 from Pole to Pole


In this activity, students will analyze data sets that show how carbon dioxide varies through the atmosphere at different latitudes, altitudes, and different times of year.


Grade Level

  • This activity is suitable for students in grades 9-12.

Time Required

  • Three (3) 45-minute class periods

Student Learning Objectives

  • Students will analyze scientific data and predict patterns of gas movement in various situations.
  • Students will understand that the data sets they are analyzing come from field research and are the same sata sets that scientists are analyzing to learn about this topic.

Science Education Standards Addressed

Next Generation Science Standards

  • Disciplinary Core Idea ESS2.D - Weather and climate
  • Disciplinary Core Idea ESS3.D - Global climate change
  • Science and Engineering Practice 4 - Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Science and Engineering Practice 6 - Constructing evidence
  • Science and Engineering Practice 7 - Engaging in argument from evidence


  • Engage (5-10 minutes)
    •  Ask students the following questions: What gases are in the atmosphere? How do we know they are there?
    • (1 minute) Watch the clip on the HIPPO project (Steve Wofsy) to introduce a test method scientists are using to measure atmospheric gases.
  • Explore (20-35 minutes)
    • (5-10 minutes) Divide students into pairs and give each pair a set of HIPPO CO2 Curtain Plots. Have students identify the variables and interesting points on the graphs and then put meaning to the data.  All markings should be directly on the graph with highlighter and pens or pencils.
    • (5-10 minutes) Using the Backgrounds & Extensions section of this activity, discuss limitations of this type of research with students.
    • (5-10 minutes) Re-visit the graphs as a class; have students share what they interpreted in each graph (see the Teacher Key of the HIPPO 1-5 Curtain Plot Data Sets for this information).
  • Explain(45 minutes)
    • (5 minutes) Have students define a “source” and a “sink” in relation to carbon.
    • Students will need copies of Worksheet #1: Carbon Dioxide Concentrations in the Atmosphere and a computer with an Internet connection. Have students conduct research on the Internet regarding factors that change atmospheric carbon dioxide. (See the Teacher Key to Worksheets #1 and #2 for this information.)
  • Elaborate (20 minutes)
  • Evaluate (10-20 minutes)
    • Short Response Question: As an expert scientist, you were selected to fly on the next HIPPO mission. Unfortunately, a forest fire over Brazil will keep you grounded. Meanwhile, your supervisor asks you to speak to the public about the implications of this fire on atmospheric CO2. Use all of your knowledge to create a statement to the public about the impact of this forest fire on the atmospheric CO2 levels in the Pacific Ocean (describe the concentration of atmospheric CO2 from pole-to-pole). (See information provided in the Background & Extensions section of this activity)

Background Information

The HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observations (HIPPO) field project investigated the carbon cycle and greenhouse gases throughout the atmosphere at various altitudes along flight paths over the Pacific Basin. HIPPO measured profiles of atmospheric gas and particle concentrations from approximately the north pole to the south pole, from the surface of the Earth to the tropopause (the top of the troposphere), five times during different seasons over a three year period from 2009-2011.

The main goal of this program was to determine the global distribution of carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases by analyzing air samples at various altitudes and latitudes in the Pacific Basin. The following scientific questions were the focus of the project:

  1. Understanding the global sources (producers) and sinks (storage) for CO2, CH4, and other carbon cycle gases
  2. Determining large-scale rates of how and where chemicals are transported in the atmosphere around the globe

Limitations of the HIPPO data used in this activity:

  • The flights are limited to the Pacific Basin and didn't cover other regions of the globe.
  • HIPPO sampled most of the troposphere. At high northern latitudes in winter it sampled the lower stratosphere, too.
  • Each flight occurred on one particular day, which makes the data somewhat sensitive to weather conditions on that day, and each flight series was in one year  and things can change from year to year.

Answers to the short response question used in the Evaluation section of this activity:

Student answers may include the following, not limited to:

  • Atmospheric CO2 levels would increase in the regions above the fire, but local communities should not be alarmed as the fire plume is mixed rapidly and the concentrations will be less than experienced in a city.
  • The South East Trade winds would push the CO2 in the 0-30 degrees latitude band towards the Pacific Ocean and convection will carry it up into the uppermost atmosphere.
  • The CO2 levels will be elevated as compared to normal over the ocean.