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A new tool for teaching climate change in the cloud

November 20, 2013 | By Microsoft blog editor

Starting in the tenth century, during the Medieval Warm Period, Greenland was a fraction of a degree warmer than today. Norse settlers raised livestock and cultivated small farms. Later, in the fifteenth century, a colder climate and conflicts with the Inuit caused them to abandon their settlements. Critics of anthropogenic global warming cite this earlier episode of warming as evidence that periods of rising temperatures are part of the natural cycle of climate change. By so doing, they attempt to dismiss the impact of human activities on today’s warming world, but without examining the causes of climate changes at various times in Earth’s history.

ChronoZoom helps students examine climate changes throughout history

One of my challenges as a teacher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is to help my students put such historical evidence in perspective. Every year, I teach a course about Earth system science to 80 to 100 incoming graduate students. It’s very important that these students understand how Earth functions as a planet, including how and why its climate changes. We know that Earth goes through periods in which the climate varies. And at different timescales, we understand why the climate changes.

Covering millions of years’ worth of warming trends in a single term is a challenge; managing the massive volumes of data, charts, videos, illustrations, and other support materials is even more daunting. I’ve struggled to pull together all these materials in an accessible—and manageable—manner.

Scientists have uncovered evidence of climate changes dating back millions of years.Thanks to ChronoZoom, an award-winning, open-source community project that is dedicated to visualizing the history of everything, I now have an effective way of collecting, presenting, and managing all of these resources. A joint effort of the University of California, Berkeley; Moscow State University; the Outercurve Foundation; and Microsoft Research Connections, ChronoZoom lets my students navigate through time, from the Big Bang to recent historical events, stopping to study detailed information at any point in history. With the ability to compare events that occurred in the distant past with what’s going on in the present, my students can better understand how we know that today’s warming climate is driven by human activities. For example, by using data derived from ice cores and thermometers, they can examine how changes in temperature relate to events in human and pre-human history.

By using ChronoZoom, I’m developing a history of Earth that illustrates changes in climate from the beginning of the planet through modern day. I’m including images, diagrams, graphs, and time-lapse movies that illustrate changes in the environment, pulling these resources together to create tours: explanatory narratives that my students can explore at any speed and level of detail they want. They can skip over some details and dive deep into others. They can zoom rapidly from one time period to another, moving through history as quickly or slowly as they want.

By using ChronoZoom, Dozier is developing a history of Earth that illustrates changes in climate from the beginning of the planet through modern day.

By using ChronoZoom, Dozier is developing a history of Earth that illustrates changes in climate from the beginning of the planet through modern day.

Because ChronoZoom operates in the cloud and can be accessed from anywhere through any modern web browser, teachers and schools don’t have to invest in new equipment or software. That’s definitely a plus, especially in these days of tight budgets. But for my money, the best value lies in the volume and depth of material that can be packed into a single ChronoZoom timeline. Moreover, thanks to Microsoft Azure, the tool has the flexibility to scale up and down, so that even projects that focus on but a sliver of the history of everything—such as the history of humanity or maybe just the twentieth century or the last couple of weeks—still benefit from presentation in ChronoZoom.

Dozier's timeline includes images, diagrams, graphs, and time-lapse movies that illustrate changes in the environment.What’s more, I’ll be able to share my tours with other teachers—and take advantage of theirs—because we can all upload our information to the cloud, making our data, images, and text available in any Internet-connected classroom. Our students can do this, too, creating and sharing their own tours.

I’m sure that ChronoZoom is going to change the way I teach and, more importantly, the way students learn, and I encourage anyone with an interest in understanding the interconnections of history to put their own content into ChronoZoom.

Jeff Dozier, Professor of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara

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