Climate monitoring

Step outside and you can learn a lot about your local weather, but what does it tell you about your climate?

Monitoring and measuring

We start monitoring of our local climate at an early age. Almost any elementary school student can pick out a coat that will be heavy enough for the winter climate in their area. They may also know that a coat will be more useful in Alaska than a bathing suit. Monitoring the climate can be as simple as these personal observations or as complex as a sensor array on a network of orbiting satellites.

The NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory cooperative global air sampling network used to determine the Annual Greenhouse Gas Index (AGGI).
How NOAA keeps track of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases
NOAA’s Global Monitoring Division produces the Annual Greenhouse Gas Index—a yearly report on the combined influence of long-lived greenhouse gases on Earth’s surface temperature...

Climate, the atmosphere, and land

Scientists, volunteer observers, and automated instruments from around the worldoffsite link measure climate variables at Earth's surface and above. Some of the data collected include air chemistry, temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, and winds. Instruments carried on balloons and wind profiling radar provide observations from the surface to more than 10 miles high. Satellites constantly capture information about glacier melting rates, winds, temperature, and clouds.

Climate and the ocean

The world's ocean has a huge impact on climate, so we constantly monitor it with satellites, ships, and buoys. Over 4000 buoys and floatsoffsite link take daily measurements at the ocean surface as well as thousands of feet below. Sea surface temperature, chemical composition, ocean currents, sea level, sea ice, and heat content are among the items measured in order to monitor climate.

The embedded pebbles and dingy ice tell researchers that this portion of the ice core is from the bottom of the glacier, right above bedrock. This chunk comes from the first ice core drilled at Mt. Hunter, Alaska; the core's total length was 682 feet.
Climate at the core: How scientists study ice cores to reveal Earth’s climate history
Airborne relics of Earth's earlier climate tell a story about how our planet's climate and atmosphere have changed...

Climate and the Sun

The amount of solar energy reaching Earth also affects climate. Changes in solar activity and in Earth's orbit influence the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth and how it is distributed among different latitudes and seasons. These cycles have caused major climatic changes through Earth's history. Satellite-based instruments constantly monitor the sun's activity helping to predict the sun's influence on Earth's climate.

Historic climate

Past climate, or paleoclimate, cannot be measured directly. However, solid clues about conditions in the past can be obtained from natural records such as tree rings, coral skeletons, glaciers, fossils, and sediments. These natural records help us learn what the climate was like long before scientific monitoring began.

A drifter topples from the cargo bay of a plane into the path of Hurricane Dean in late summer 2007. The cardboard box dissolved, freeing the drifter. An array of drifters measured wind velocity and air and surface temperature during the passage of the Category 5 hurricane through the western Caribbean Sea.
Drifter buoys provide ground truth for climate data
Drifters provide essential sea-surface temperature and ocean current data used by climate models...


The resources in this collection provide data, videos, lesson plans, and other resources that will help students understand how and why scientists measure and monitor climate and climate change. Encouraging students to examine, question, and analyze this evidence can enhance the use of higher order thinking skills, allow for scientific conclusions about climate change, and increase their climate literacy.

Introductory text compiled from resources provided by the NOAA Climate Program Office and National Centers for Environmental Information.

Page late updated April 2011.