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Predicting Glacial Futures

Becca Walker, InTeGrate; SERC

This activity in a case study format explores ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet by way of outlet glaciers that flow into the ocean. Students do basic calculations and learn about data trends, rates of change, uncertainty, and predictions.

Activity takes about 40 minutes.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 3 Cross Cutting Concepts, 1 Science and Engineering Practice

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Observations are the foundation for understanding the climate system
About Teaching Principle 5
Other materials addressing 5b
Sea level rise and resulting impacts is due to melting ice and thermal expansion and increases the risk
About Teaching Principle 7
Other materials addressing 7a
Effects of climate change on water cycle and freshwater availability
About Teaching Principle 7
Other materials addressing 7b

Energy Literacy

The effects of changes in Earth's energy system are often not immediately apparent.
Other materials addressing:
2.7 Effects of changes in Earth's energy system .

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • This is the second of two case studies that examine ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet. The two case studies can be used independently or together, and there is an overarching teacher's guide that covers both case studies plus additional background information. https://serc.carleton.edu/integrate/teaching_materials/climate_change/unit4_cover.html
  • This activity would tie in nicely with the topic of sea level rise.
  • Noted from the resource:
  • It is important to discuss the different mechanisms by which ice loss occurs across the Greenland ice sheet.
  • The Extreme Ice Survey time-lapse video clips (links to these clips are in the Resources section) may be useful in conveying the magnitude of the Greenland ice sheet and its outlet glaciers.
  • Consider doing a quick calculation exercise for visualization purposes to get students thinking about a glacier's area in km2 (e.g. how many classrooms equal a km2).
  • Reinforce students' understanding, if their initial calculations and predictions do not "match" the measured data, by reviewing calculating rates of change and making predictions using a trend line, and/or discuss that uncertainty is inherent in making predictions about complex systems like the Greenland ice sheet.

About the Science

  • Activity addresses calving of marine-terminating glaciers in Greenland as an ice loss mechanism, the prominence of this mechanism during the last decade as expressed in the data, and implications for future changes in the Greenland ice sheet.
  • Data from MODIS satellite technology is incorporated.
  • Comments from expert scientist:
    Scientific strengths:
    -Great exercise!
    - Use of negative values with respect to rate of change
    - Reading graphs
    - Compares predicted to measured rate of changes

    - Numbers 4 and 5 should specific which Y-axis unit to use (km^2 or mi^2)

About the Pedagogy

  • This activity allows students to work with data firsthand and helps them see the decline in glacial area and the methods scientists use to predict future decline. Concepts, including math, are presented in a coherent manner and are well scaffolded.
  • Independently or in groups, students:
    - Calculate the average rate of change in area for a set of Greenland's marine-terminating outlet glaciers between 2001 and 2009.
    - Predict the area change for these glaciers for 2009–10.
    - Compare the predicted area changes to the measured area changes and evaluate the accuracy of the prediction.
    - Consider the ease of predicting future changes in the areas of marine-terminating outlet glaciers in Greenland.
  • High-quality references and background materials are provided, though the Byrd Polar Research Center links are broken at present. These are not essential in completing the activity.
  • Assessment strategies and an answer "guide" are provided. In many cases, the answers given by students will vary considerably, so the answer guide reflects this approach.
  • Student resources and an instructor's guide are provided.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • This activity is well thought out and carefully described. All of the materials are included and each step of the process is thoroughly documented. Supplemental resources are also provided.
  • Activity resources are available as both Word and PDF downloads.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

High School

Cross Cutting Concepts: 3

Patterns, Systems and System Models, Stability and Change

HS-C1.4:Mathematical representations are needed to identify some patterns

HS-C4.4:Models can be used to predict the behavior of a system, but these predictions have limited precision and reliability due to the assumptions and approximations inherent in models.

HS-C7.2:Change and rates of change can be quantified and modeled over very short or very long periods of time. Some system changes are irreversible.

Science and Engineering Practices: 1

Developing and Using Models

HS-P2.6:Develop and/or use a model (including mathematical and computational) to generate data to support explanations, predict phenomena, analyze systems, and/or solve problems.

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