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Prehistoric Climate Change and Why It Matters Today

Prehistoric Climate Change and Why It Matters Today

If you�re looking for a science activity to help introduce environmental issues, or if you�re looking for fun and challenging real-world math problems, we invite you to take a look at this issue of Smithsonian in Your Classroom. In the lesson plan, the class does the work of a team of paleontologists studying a time of rapid global warming 55 million years ago. By examining fossils of leaves from various tree species, and by incorporating the findings into a mathematical formula, the students are able to tell average annual temperatures during this prehistoric time. The method they practice is called �leaf-margin analysis,� which begins by determining the percentage of leaves that have smooth edges, as opposed to toothed, or jagged, edges. This number�the percentage�goes into an equation that gives the average temperature in Celsius. The higher the percentage of smooth leaves, the warmer the climate. The leaf fossils were discovered by a Smithsonian paleontologist in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming. It was a major find: the leaves were the first record of plant life from the rapid warm-up, called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). They showed, more clearly...

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