Studying CO2 from Pole to Pole

Main content

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.

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 data sets that scientists are analyzing to learn about this topic.


Other Materials: 

  • Computer with access to the Internet


  • 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)
  • Explain(45 minutes)
    • (5 minutes) Have students define a “source” and a “sink” in relation to carbon.
    • Students will need copies of Student Page 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 and Student Sheets #1 and #2 for this information.)
  • Elaborate (20 minutes)
    • Have students fill out Student Page 2: Carbon Flow Diagram to show sinks and sources of CO2. (See the Teacher Key to Student Pages 1 and 2 for this information.)
  • 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)


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.