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        Melting Ice

        In this media-rich lesson, students explore the role that ice plays on Earth, the factors causing it to melt, and the local and global consequences of melting ice. This resource is part of the Polar Sciences collection.

        Lesson Summary


        Ice affects the entire Earth system in a variety of ways. It should be no surprise, then, that melting ice is having numerous widespread effects on our planet. In this lesson, students begin to develop an understanding of our planet and how, no matter where we live, we are part of an interconnected system that sustains life. The effects of melting in the Arctic, for example, extend far beyond a local Inuit population. Even to a student living in a hot desert climate, ice matters. The lesson begins with a group viewing of a video designed to get students to consider both the local and global effects of climate change. The class then divides into small groups for inquiry activities on related topics. After completing these activities, the groups present their findings to the entire class. A final class discussion reveals a more complex understanding of both the local and global impacts of melting ice.


        • Understand that ice takes different forms on Earth
        • Recognize that ice is melting everywhere and identify which factors are causing this to occur
        • Identify the multiple effects and consequences of melting ice both in the Arctic and worldwide

        Grade Level: 6–8, 9–12

        Suggested Time

        • Two to three class periods

        Media Resources


        • Science notebooks
        • Newsprint or easel paper and markers for poster session.
        • For each group of students: (Note: This is an optional activity. See Step 2.)
          • Melting Ice Experiment PDF Document
          • Two clear glasses
          • Material to suspend ice cubes over glass of water, such as cheesecloth or perforated plastic wrap
          • Ice cubes (4–6)
          • Hair drier or other warming device to melt the ice

        Before the Lesson

        • Arrange computers with Internet access so students can work in pairs or small groups.
        • Collect all materials.

        The Lesson

        Part I: The Far-Reaching Effects of Melting

        1. Lead with a warm-up activity. Show students the Inuit Observations of Climate Change QuickTime Video. As they watch, students should focus on an important over-arching concept: reverberations, or the remote or indirect consequences of an action. Ask students to consider how what happens in one place affects not only the local area and its inhabitants but also those in other parts of the world. Have them come up with some examples to reinforce the concept. After the video, have students discuss some of the changes that have impacted the way of life of this Arctic village.

        2. Ask students whether there is a significant difference in the environmental impact of melting sea ice, which floats on the ocean's surface, compared with the impact of melting land ice. Present the Ice Shelf and Ice Sheet Simulation Flash Interactive, or have students conduct the experiment in groups as an activity. See instructions in the Melting Ice Experiment PDF Document.

        3. After students complete the interactive activity or hands-on experiment, discuss their observations and hypotheses. Listen for evidence of understanding. The main takeaway from this part of the lesson is that the melting of land ice will contribute to global sea-level rise, whereas the melting of sea ice and icebergs—though significant in other ways—will result in little if any measurable change in sea level. Before continuing, discuss the following questions:

        1. What are the effects of melting sea ice and land ice on the Inuit village in the video?
        2. How do you think each kind of melting might impact different parts of the world?

        4. Tell students that they will now focus on glaciers, and ask if, like sea ice and land ice, glaciers are also melting. Check to be sure that students know what glaciers are and how they differ from what you've referred to as land ice. (For more information, see the Background Essay for Earth System: Ice and Global Warming QuickTime Video.) Then show the Earth System: Ice and Global Warming QuickTime Video. Follow the video with a discussion of the questions below:

        1. Discuss the factors that influence the balance between inputs and outputs to and from glaciers.
        2. Do you think glaciers can be useful indicators of climate change? Why or why not?
        3. What impact does global warming have on the balance between glacier inputs and outputs?
        4. Discuss some of the influences glacial ice has on the surrounding areas.

        5. Review the concept of "Earth as a system" and show the Earth as a System QuickTime Video. Apart from sea level, list other components of the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere that are or may be influenced by melting ice and explain how. Create a concept map or system diagram on the board and include the class-generated list in the matrix.

        (Optional) You may also want to introduce another component, the cryosphere, which is not mentioned in the preceding video. The cryosphere describes those portions of Earth's surface where water is in solid form. Show students Earth's Cryosphere: The Arctic QuickTime Video and Earth's Cryosphere: Antarctica QuickTime Video.

        Part II: Polar Ice in the Earth System

        6. The class-generated list will be used as the basis for small-group inquiry activities. If the class has not identified all topics listed below, you may want to steer further discussion before continuing so that all topics are included among the key related concepts. Each topic is listed with suggested resources for further exploration.

        1. Sea-level change – suggested resource: Mountain of Ice: If the Ice Melts Flash Interactive
        2. Ocean currents – suggested resources: Great Ocean Conveyor Belt: Part I GIF Image; Great Ocean Conveyor Belt: Part II QuickTime Audio
        3. Weather patterns – suggested resource: What Causes the Gulf Stream? QuickTime Video
        4. Food webs – suggested resources: Antarctic Food Web Game Flash Interactive; Arctic Ecosystem Flash Interactive; Antarctic Ecosystem Flash Interactive
        5. Arctic Tundra – suggested resource: Arctic Tundra QuickTime Video
        6. Albedo – suggested resource: Earth’s Albedo and Global Warming HTML Interactive
        7. Landscape – suggested resources: Documenting Glacial Change Flash Interactive; Changing Arctic Landscape QuickTime Video

        7. Assign students to small groups. Tell them that each group represents a team of scientists tasked to report to an International Commission established in conjunction with the International Polar Year (IPY) research initiative, studying the effects of polar ice melting. Assign each team one topic from the list above and have the team explore this topic using the suggested media resources. When all teams have finished, each should summarize its findings. The findings should specifically address how and why polar melting impacts the group's assigned topic.

        8. (Optional for Grades 9–12) Additional resources to support these topics may be desired. Two suggested Web sites on which to conduct a search are:

        Part III: Poster Session and Discussion

        9. "Poster sessions" are often used at scientific meetings to display research results. Each team will present its findings to the International Commission (the class) by creating a poster. In addition to displaying the team's findings, make sure each poster also contains an answer to the question: If ice melts at the poles, what other parts of the globe will experience consequences? The teams may answer this question by naming remote areas or indigenous cultures that stand to be affected, or by stating how their own city or town will be affected. Divide the poster viewing into two sessions, so that at least one team member is available to answer questions about their poster while the other(s) are viewing the other teams' work.

        10. Following the poster session, allow time to discuss the experience as a class and create an impact statement designed to answer the question, "Why should we care if glacial ice melts?" You may ask the class to take action based on their statement, for example, by sending a letter to a government body or representative, or even the local newspaper.

        Check for Understanding

        Lead a final class discussion on how all of the topics presented fit together. The discussion should reveal a more complex understanding of both the local and global impacts of melting ice and touch on the impact on indigenous cultures discussed at the opening. Use some or all of the following questions to help engage the students in the discussion:

        • Should a person living in the African desert care about melting ice in the Arctic? Why or why not?
        • In what ways could Arctic ice melting affect both an Inuit culture along the Arctic Sea and an Indonesian village along the Indian Ocean? Have them list some examples to support their answers.
        • What were some of the changes in sea ice observed by the Inuit community, and in what ways do they see these changes impacting their daily lives?
        • What are some of the other changes related to climate change that were identified by the Inuit community?
        • Why it is important to look at environmental problems at different scales of analysis, that is, to assess their impact on both individual community and global levels?
        • What scientific advances have made it possible to examine changes in the Earth system at a regional or global scale, as you have done in this exercise?


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