Moving Carbon, Changing Earth: Bringing the Carbon Cycle to Life

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Ingrid Zabel1, Don Duggan-Haas1, Robert M Ross1, Beth Stricker1 and Natalie M Mahowald2, (1)Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, NY, United States, (2)Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, United States
The carbon cycle presents challenges to researchers – in how to understand the complex interactions of fluxes, reservoirs, and systems – and to outreach professionals – in how to get across the complexity of the carbon cycle and still make it accessible to the public. At Cornell University and the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, NY, researchers and outreach staff tackled these challenges together through a 2013 temporary museum exhibition: Moving Carbon, Changing Earth.

Moving Carbon, Changing Earth introduced visitors to the world of carbon and its effect on every part of our lives. The exhibit was the result of the broader impacts portion of an NSF grant awarded to Natalie Mahowald, Professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University, who has been working with a team to improve simulations of regional and decadal variability in the carbon cycle. Within the exhibition, visitors used systems thinking to understand the distribution of carbon in and among Earth’s systems, learning how (and how quickly or slowly) carbon moves between and within these systems, the relative scale of different reservoirs, and how carbon’s movement changes climate and other environmental dynamics. Five interactive stations represented the oceans, lithosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and a mystery reservoir. Puzzles, videos, real specimens, and an interview with Mahowald clarified and communicated the complexities of the carbon cycle.

In this talk we’ll present background information on Mahowald’s research as well as photos of the exhibition and discussion of the components and motivations behind them, showing examples of innovative ways to bring a complex topic to life for museum visitors.