Natural Records of Climate Change

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Students play a dice game to explore the differences between direct and indirect evidence to gain an understanding of how indirect evidence of climate change can be interpreted. The activity concludes with a discussion about the various records made by humans and indirect evidence found in nature that can be studied to understand how climate has varied through time.

Learning Goal

Students will understand that scientists use data from many sources to understand past climates and climate change.

Learning Objectives

  • Students willLearn that evidence of climate change is found in the natural world (indirect evidence) and human observations (direct evidence).
  • Students will learn that indirect evidence can be interpreted if they know how the natural system that generated the indirect evidence works.
  • Students will learn that scientists study how natural systems are influenced in the modern world in order to interpret indirect evidence and understand how they were influenced by past climate change.



  • Review the lesson plans and associated science background information provided.
  • Prepare copies of the Student Pages (1-2) for each pair of students.
  • Familiarize yourself with the different types of climate recorders included in the Natural Records of Change slide deck.
  • Gather examples of tree rings or fossils to share with the class (optional). This could be pictures or actual specimens. Having actual examples of paleoclimate evidence will increase student engagement and understanding.


Introducing the Lesson

  1. Explain that clues to how the climate has changed exist in the natural world in tree rings, Arctic and Antarctic ice, and layers of sediments on the seafloor and lake bottoms. Discuss why these data are indirect evidence of past climate.
  2. Explain to students that in this activity they will assume the role of scientists viewing and interpreting data. They will record indirect evidence of events that happened. They will learn what is involved in accurately interpreting indirect evidence.
  3. Give students an overview of the activity: With a partner, generate the indirect evidence that will be interpreted by another group.

Facilitating the Lesson

  1. Divide students into pairs and provide each pair with a copy of Student Page 1 (Direct Evidence Secret Key) and Student Page 2 (Indirect Evidence Record).
  2. Provide each student pair with one die. Instruct them to roll the die and record the series of numbers they rolled in order on the Record of Direct Evidence (Student Page 1, Step #1). Have students repeat this process for 20 rolls of the die.
  3. Instruct students to choose a color to represent each number (1-6) on their Secret Key (Student Page 1, Step #2) and mark that color in the box next to the number. Tell students that the color key should be kept secret from other student pairs.
  4. Then instruct students to record the colors that correspond to the sequence of numbers rolled (as they chose in their Key) on the Indirect Evidence Record (Student Page 2, Step #3). Do not write the numbers on the Indirect Evidence Record (Student Page 2)!
  5. Have two pairs join together making a group of four. Tell the pairs of students that their goal is to decode each other's keys without speaking a word or looking at the Secret Key (Student Page 1).
  6. To figure out which color corresponds to which number, one pair watches (and takes notes) while the other pair continues to roll the die and place a color along their remaining squares in the Indirect Evidence Record (Student Page 2, Step #4).
  7. Once one pair has the key decoded and has identified which numbers were rolled in order on the Indirect Evidence Record (Step #5), allow them to check the key. Then the pairs switch roles.

Summarizing and Reflecting

  1. Tell students that the natural world leaves indirect evidence of climate change. Scientists study how things in the natural world are affected by changes in temperature so that they can decode indirect evidence left behind by these natural things.
  2. Project the Natural Records of Climate Change slide deck to show examples of different types of evidence (slides 2-8). Discuss the many different types of indirect evidence that scientists investigate to understand past climate. Then discuss the direct evidence that they use (records made by humans). Discuss the benefits and limitations of each.



Paleoclimatology is the science of reconstructing climate history. Scientists interested in climate change do not have methods for directly measuring ancient conditions. Thus, they collect indirect evidence of climate change, known as "proxy" data. Each source of data may respond to different conditions in the local and global environment. Humans recorded observations of weather because it has been very important throughout our history. By combining data from various historical sources, scientists develop a broad understanding of climate change over hundreds of years for specific regions of the world. Nature and humans have created records of climate change. For example:

Nature's records of climate change (proxy data):

  • Tree rings
  • Location (elevation and latitude) of environmentally sensitive plant and animal life
  • Ice layers in glaciers
  • Pollen
  • Ocean and lake sediments

Human records of climate change:

  • Records of harvest production
  • Records of the cost of basic foodstuffs
  • Artistic renderings of the environment
  • Photographs Records of annual social events based on natural phenomena (such as harvest celebrations)
  • Records of the timing of tree flowering and lake freezing


  • Have students develop their own secret code for others to decode.

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