Teaching children about the carbon cycle doesn’t have to be confusing. Once they understand the relationship between trees and climate change, they can be climate change ambassadors to friends and family.
Here’s an exercise that SavingSpecies President Stuart Pimm does with high school students.
Because it’s a science class, Pimm starts with two key facts. He’ll be talking about tons of carbon — and burning one ton of carbon produces 3.7 tons of carbon dioxide. Second, he’ll be using the metric system.
“How much does a tree weigh?” he asks. No one answers.
“Imagine a tree as a cylinder. The volume of a cylinder is its area — that’s pi r squared” — the class groans — “times its length” — more groans. But that’s the hard part.
Quickly, students estimate that a good-sized tree in the forests of eastern North America has a diameter of about one metre (so about three feet) and maybe ten metres (about thirty feet) tall. The volume comes to 7.85 cubic metres.
“How heavy is wood is easy!” Pimm tells them.
Pimm reminds them of Archimedes and bath tubs.
“Put a stick in water, keep it upright, and notice that about 70% of it is underwater. That’s the specific gravity of wood.”
A cubic metre of water weighs a ton, so the tree weighs about 70% of that, and 70% of 7.85 is 5.5 tons.
“How much of wood is carbon? Well weigh a piece, dry it, then burn it: the carbon has burned off as carbon dioxide.”
The answer is that wood is about half carbon — and so that one tree is 2.75 tons of carbon.
The class goes outside and measures how many trees of different sizes there are in an area of forest.
Trees are not perfect cylinders, of course, but this simple exercise teaches some basic algebra and physics — which high school teachers love, even as their students groan. It also gets the students excited about how to improve the estimates, including how to estimate the height of a tree. (Simple algebra too, using the tool on the iPhone that estimates angles.)
It also has the essentials of the contribution of deforestation to carbon emissions and the potential of reforestation to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The class comes back inside. There are good data online that show how much forests shrink each year. Look at satellite images on Google Earth that show that many forests are being cleared by burning them.
In an afternoon’s class, one can get sensible, if rough, estimates of the planet’s most important land-use change and of how much it contributes to the increase in the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Certainly, these exercises make other important points. To do them correctly, one needs to spend a lot of effort in a lot of places to estimate the full range of values expected and how they vary across Earth’s different ecosystems. (The methods suggested here wouldn’t work well outside of Phoenix, Arizona, for example.)
When one has those values, then scientists can work out how best to predict them — from data obtained from satellite imagery, for example. Green places in the Eastern USA have more carbon than the desert southwest. But no satellite can save the hot, steamy, hard work of measuring trees! That’s fundamental.
Carbon cycle graphic by http://www.nps.gov/olym/hand/process/ccycle.htm, Public Domain
Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2230234