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  • Paul Thornycroft

Learning about the Keeling Curve and Methane Plumes

A school project on understanding what drives climate change

Excerpt from The Adventures of Horatio Mowzl Vol 3 The Great Rising; Chapter Four: 'Trouble'; pp121 - 125

Foreword: There is always something happening in our lives, or in the world, to take our attention away from Climate Breakdown, Global Heating and Ecological Collapse; but all of these things are happening and accelerating. Alerting children to these issues, teaching children the principles of ecology and natural history is vital to their future, and indeed, the future of life on Earth.

I believe that 'The Adventures of Horatio Mowzl', a trilogy of children's books, is an educational resource that can help with teaching children about climate change.

Here is the story:

On the morning of the last day of term the weather is mild, a nice

change after the rainy two weeks they’ve just had. Mrs Weeble has

organised a treasure hunt, well several really, using different

coloured paper for the clues for each class. The children rush around

the playground, playing field and Nature garden looking for clues;

it’s all a bit chaotic and crazy, and loads of fun. In the end, they find

small boxes of chocolate eggs, a treat for after lunch.

Later, in Billy’s class, the teacher John Weatherstone taps on his desk and

holds up a hand for quiet. When the children have quieted down, he

introduces the afternoon’s challenge.

“This afternoon will be the last challenge of the term. You all

saw Tom Wylder’s film ‘Rewilding’ and I’m sure you remember

what he said about giving you a last task.” The children groan. “It

won’t be as bad as all that! And it won’t take you long, if I know

anything about you lot. Now then, Tom divided you up into five

groups and gave each group an ecology concept to research. What

was the first one? And who is the leader of that group?”

“It’s me, sir,” says Siobhan. “We were asked to explain what is

meant by ‘Ecosystem Engineer’.”

“Thank you, Siobhan, and did you find out what it means?”

“Yes, sir, and lots of examples, sir, so it was difficult to choose.

Ecosystem engineers are species that make habitat for other species,

just by doing what they do. One example is beavers. Beavers cut

down trees using their teeth. They eat the leaves and twigs and use

the branches to build dams across the streams and rivers where they

live. The dams make pools that flood the banks and make the

ground wet all around, and this makes lots of different habitats that

wouldn’t be there without the beavers. And all this slows down the

water flowing in the stream, so it doesn’t rush down and flood

villages lower down.

“Other ‘ecosystem engineers’ are elephants and wild boar, but

they don’t have to be big. A very long time ago when life on Earth

was just getting started, there were the first tiny algae-like things

that made oxygen and that changed the whole planet and it took two

hundred million years before the ground stopped soaking up all the


John is impressed. “So, an Ecosystem Engineer is a species that

changes the environment, creating more habitats for other species?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good, thank you, Siobhan, well done to your group. It makes

me wonder... Humankind is a species that changes the environment,

but we are reducing the diversity of habitats, and causing extinction

of other species. We are ecosystem demolition engineers, it seems. Now,

who’s next?”

“Me, sir,” says Jerome. “We got given a tough one I reckon.

What is ‘Shifting Baseline Syndrome’? Well, we didn’t have a clue

what any of those words meant, so we had to ask around and look

on the internet and everything.

“It’s like my Dad saying that when he was a kid there was loads

of birds and insects and flowers, lots more than now. But when I ask

my granddad he says no!––when he was a kid, there was even more

birds and flowers and trees and everything. So, what it’s about is

scientists is not looking back far enough when they decide how

many fish there should be, like cod for our fish ’n chips. They’re

saying that cod numbers is back up to 1980’s numbers so it’s alright

to fish them again, but some bloke did research and found 1980’s

numbers of fish is only a tenth, no, less than that, of what they used

to be.

“We’ve forgotten how much wildlife there used to be, so we just

say ‘when I was a kid there was loads of––’, as if that was alright,

but it weren’t.”

“Very good Jerome,” says John. “Well done to you and your

team. Right, who’s next?”

“Erm, me, sir,” says Billy, feeling nervous and shy. “Like

Jerome, we’ ’ad a really ’orrible one ’cos we asn’t a clue. We was

asked: ‘what’s Trophic Cascade’ mean?

“Well, we ’as to do a bit o’ work ’n research ’n all that

malarkey. It’s about ‘food chains’, where there’s little things at the

bottom is gettin’ eaten by bigger things, ’n the biggest things is at

the top; ‘trophic’ means the levels in between, like rungs on a


“‘Cascade’ is like a waterfall ’n trophic cascade is like when a

creature on one level dies out ’n this is bad news for everythin’ else.

We’s findin’ an example ’n it’s sea otters eatin’ sea urchins in the

kelp forests in the sea. Kelp is seaweed what grows big ’n tall ’n is

eaten by sea urchins. ’Umans kill off the otters ’n the urchins gets

too many ’n they eats all the kelp ’n everything dies off.”

“Very good, Billy, well done to you and your team. It shows

how things are all linked together. Right, who’s next?”

“I am, sir,” says Penny, “and we were asked to explain ‘Methane

Plumes’. We didn’t know so we had to look it up and it’s a bit


“Methane Plumes is when methane gas bubbles up from the

bottom of the arctic ocean. Methane gas is made when plants and

animals die and sink to the bottom of the sea and go mouldy and rot.

Because the Arctic has been frozen for thousands of years, the

methane gets frozen solid inside the ice and it’s called methane

hydrate, because of the ice. But the ice is melting, and the sea is

getting warmer and the frozen methane hydrate is melting, and the

methane gas is bubbling up and going into the air. What’s really

bad, is that methane is a lot worse greenhouse gas than carbon

dioxide. It’s a hundred times worse, well, about 84 times, in fact.

“Methane plumes are natural, but as the sea warms up they are

getting bigger and bigger and are happening more often, making

climate change go quicker. We also found out that methane and

carbon dioxide gases are being released as permafrost melts.”

“Thank you, Penny, well done to you and to your group. Is there

one more group?”

“Yes, sir, the Keeling Curve,” says David, a little nervously.

“Like the others, our group didn’t know anything about the Keeling

Curve, so we had to look it up. Mr Wylder gave us some clues

where to look. Anyway, Olly suggested we ask in the office for

some photocopies, so here’s a drawing we made of the Keeling

Curve.” David walks around handing out a copy to each person in

the class, including Mr Weatherstone.

“What it is,” David explains, “is – and I’m reading out from

something we found – ‘a graph of the accumulation of carbon

dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere based on continuous

measurements taken at the Mauna Loa observatory on the island of

Hawaii from 1958 to the present day.’

“That’s the end of the quote. It was Doctor Charles Keeling who

started doing it and kept it going. It’s still going now. Other

scientists got interested because the increases in carbon dioxide in

the air matched the increase in fossil fuel burning, and this was the

first time a scientist had said it––that humans are causing climate


“I forgot to say, CO2 is one of the greenhouse gases that are

building up in the atmosphere and absorbing heat from the sun and

warming the planet. You won’t know this, but I read it along the

way, that half of all human CO2 emissions have happened since

1990––get your heads round that! We can’t blame history for

climate change, it’s all of us alive NOW that are doing it––and we

could fix it, we have to fix it.”

A shocked silence follows David’s speech. His friends look at

him with admiration, for they know how hard it has been for him

since he met the mouse. The others in class are surprised by David’s

performance, and shocked by what he says. John Weatherstone is

very impressed.

“Thank you, David, that was a remarkable presentation, well

done to you, and well done to your group. I must say, I am really

proud of all of you, and I am proud of everything that you’ve done

this term. I think things are going to be busy for you over the

holidays, I hope you have a good time! Class dismissed!”

“Thank you, too, sir for all your help with our projects!” cries

Penny, as the children stampede out of the classroom, down the

corridor, and out into the April air.

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