Vostok Ice Core: Excel (Mac or PC)

Stephanie Pfirman, Barnard College
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Data , Experiment/Lab Activity , Activity
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.




Students are introduced to ice cores as a source of past climate data. Students read about climate indicators measured through ice samples.  They are provided 160,000 years of ice core data from the Vostok core (origin East Antarctica) and, through a series of semi-open ended “tasks”, students organize and analyze the data within Excel.  Students must find patterns, describe rates of change, and draw conclusions about changes in the atmosphere using ice core data. Students explain the value of ice core records to their understanding of climate change in lab report format as the final product of this project.  This activity should take 3-4 hours, longer if including an introduction to Excel.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 12
  • Grade 11
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

HS-ESS3-5 Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.

Clarification Statement: Examples of evidence, for both data and climate model outputs, are for climate changes (such as precipitation and temperature) and their associated impacts (such as on sea level, glacial ice volumes, or atmosphere and ocean composition).

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to one example of a climate change and its associated impacts.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students analyze ice core data by using Excel to make graphs that can be used to compare the data. They use deuterium to serve as a proxy for temperature. Other data is then compared to the temperature graph created. The resource provides guiding questions throughout the activity, however there is only minimal background material or guidance for the educator to lead discussion around the questions. The instructor should be sure to give students the full time needed to analyze the Vostok core data and discuss with peers/as a class. The questions provided throughout the resources, especially those suggested as guidance for the lab report, guide students to discuss the use of evidence to determine past and current rates of change. Use additional ice core resources from the CLEAN website to provide supplementary background information. Including: CO2 in the Ice Core Record http://cleanet.org/resources/42848.html; Ice Core Secrets Could Reveal Answers to Global Warming, http://cleanet.org/resources/45159.html; and Ancient Ice and Our Planet's Future, http://cleanet.org/resources/43425.html; and Climate Modeling, https://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/science/future.html. Data is provided as a .tsv file, this is a tab delimited file that can be opened with Excel. The Volstok Ice Core data can also be found in txt format at: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo/f?p=519:1:0::::P1_study_id:2443.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
In this activity students are provided raw data collected from the Vostok ice core. The students are guided through the process of manipulating and visually representing the data within Excel in order to seek out patterns and make sense of the data. The instructor will need to help students guide their analysis of the real data through the use of the guiding questions within the resource and use of ice core videos suggested by CLEAN. The resource assumes familiarity with Excel and with selecting the appropriate graph type for specific data. The educator will likely have to assist students in the selection of chart type. Students unfamiliar with Excel and graphing will need additional support prior to starting the activity. The teacher could extend the activity to address computational modeling through discussion of additional evidence of climate change. The EPA Future of Climate Change page: https://www.epa.gov/climate-change-science/future-climate-change, can be used as a resource.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource was not designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
By introducing students to ice core data and having them organize and analyze real data, the resource implicitly covers the second half of this Disciplinary Core Idea, “so too are human abilities to model, predict, and manage current and future impacts.” The teacher can improve the connection to this Disciplinary Core Idea by spending time discussing the lab report guiding question #3 from the resource: “Why are these ice core paleoclimate records so important to our understanding and prediction of climate change?” Combine this activity with other climate activities that use other data sets to help students understand that climate science is based on multiple data sets. This resource does not directly address human impacts, however completing this activity and others could prepare students to have deeper discussions about human impacts while completing other activities meant to address this Disciplinary Core Idea explicitly.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This activity provides students with evidence that the climate has changed in the past and asks students to make sense of that data. The activity is open ended with regard to the detail and depth of coverage of the content. To insure coverage of the content, the teacher could direct students to research each of the topics within the Disciplinary Core Idea and discuss if there are connections between their Ice Core data analysis and each topic.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
In this activity, students are analyzing short and long term quantifiable ice core data. This activity could be a precursor to developing a model to predict future temperature and other atmospheric conditions based on current and past trends. One assumption of modern climate change research is that climate change can be slowed and reversed through manipulation of the factors that control it, thus this topic does not lend itself to the second part of this Cross Cutting Concept, that some system changes are irreversible.

This resource was not designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The purpose of this activity is to discover long term (hundreds of years) atmospheric trends that are not apparent in the short term (one to a few decades).

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Mathematically representing the ice core data is the heart of this activity. The educator can draw the student’s attention to this Cross Cutting Concept by asking the students to make sense of the raw data prior to the introduction of Excel.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This activity does engage students in 3-dimensional learning. The students are using crosscutting concepts and science and engineering practices as they work with real data and organize it to uncover data trends from the past that apply to future studies. Cross cutting concepts are embedded as they analyze the data to identify patterns of stability and change over long periods of time (scale) and determine cause and effect relationships based on past atmospheric conditions and the effect that it has on the current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. The data from the cross cutting concepts lead to the science and engineering practices: engaging in argument from evidence, which demonstrate how important data collection is to determine the understanding of past climatic conditions as related to the climate of today, based on empirical evidence. The students will analyze the real data collected over the last 160,000 years to determine climatic conditions, trends, and relevance to today’s climate. The disciplinary core idea focuses on the human impact and ability to utilize the data collected from the ice cores. This data will help mankind in understanding the future of climate change. These dimensions are not separate endeavors but are woven together as they do the activity.

  • Instructional Supports: The instructions are sufficient but minimal. The resource offers only minimal background information about ice core data and climate. Some terminology is not well defined. Identical information is offered to the student and teacher. Teachers can use other resources about ice cores within the CLEAN resources database (see activity) to prepare to lead this activity for the first time. This activity is authentic, relevant, and reflects the practice of real scientists. The data is real data; Students are learning to evaluate data from actual phenomenon rather than made-up data sets. No guidance is provided for differentiated instruction. The teacher could provide completed graphs to lower students in order to provide more time for analysis, which is the important part of the activity. The resource assumes familiarity with Excel (by the teacher and the student) and with selecting the appropriate graph type for specific data. The educator will likely have to assist students in the selection of chart types. An overview of Excel and graphing may be a prerequisite to this activity, at least for students new to the program or graphing.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The resources engage students in the development of unique products that could be used for assessment. However, the resource provides no guidance about how to assess the final products (graphs and lab report). The teacher could engage students in the development of assessments by asking the students to develop a rubric for the graphs and the lab reports. Challenge students to include both mechanics (such as organization, labels, etc.) and content (how does the report demonstrate their growth in understanding of the disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts and practices).

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The students use Excel to organize, analyze and draw conclusions about real data in much the same way as scientists. The resource provides guidance, especially about how to process the ice core data but is open-ended enough to allow students to interact authentically with the program.