Lab 4: Climate History & the Cryosphere
The lab activity described here was developed by Erin Bardar of TERC for the EarthLabs project.Use the button at the right to navigate to the student activity pages for this lab. To open the student pages in a new tab or window, right-click (control-click on a Mac) the "Open the Student Activity" button and choose "Open Link in New Window" or "Open Link in New Tab."
Investigation Summary and Learning Objectives
In the first part of this lab, students will learn about land ice and the processes and timescales involved in glaciation. In Part B, they will learn about how scientists use ice cores to study climate history. In Part C, students will use an online interactive to explore how Earth's temperature, glacial ice, coastlines, and sea level have changed over the last 450,000 years.
After completing this investigation, students will be able to:
- describe the timescales associated with glacial and interglacial periods
- describe how we know what we know about historical climate and atmospheric conditions and events;
- explain what ice cores are and how they record atmospheric and climate data; and
- describe impacts of climate change on land ice and the oceans.
For more information about the topic, read the section titled Background Information under Additional Resources below.
Activity Overview and Teaching Materials
In Part A: Students examine graphs of glacial ages in the last 1,000,000 years and 150,000 years to familiarize themselves with the timescale associated with glacial and interglacial periods. Students also learn about the Milankovitch cycles, cyclical variations in three aspects of Earth's orbit that result in changes to the amount of solar energy that reaches Earth, and are therefore believed to be responsible for ice ages and interglacial periods.
Time estimate: 50-75 minutes
In Part B: Students watch a short video about how ice cores reveal information about past climate. They then use Excel to explore and analyze 160,000 years of ice core data from the Vostok Research Station in Antarctica (Student Ice Core Data (Excel 44kB Dec18 12); Teacher version with temperature calculation and sample plots (Excel 106kB Dec18 12) .
Optional Extension: If time and interest permit, students can learn about how scientists use ice cores from mountain glaciers in the tropics to study past climate. They will read a short background essay and watch the NOVA scienceNow video segment Tropical Ice Cores Measure Climate about glaciologist Lonnie Thompson and his research of tropical mountain glaciers.
Time estimate: 50-100 minutes
In Part C: Students will use an online interactive to explore how Earth's temperature, glacial ice, coastlines, and sea level have changed over the last 450,000 years. NOTE: Student computers will need to have an up to date version of Flash installed in order to run this interactive.
Time estimate: 25-50 minutes
- (Optional) Background Essay: Tropical Ice Cores Measure Climate (Acrobat (PDF) 46kB Jul4 11)
- Stop and Think Questions (PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 45kB Jan10 13) and Word (Microsoft Word 34kB Jan10 13))
- Suggested Answers (Microsoft Word 111kB Jan10 13) to Stop and Think questions
Teaching Notes and Tips
In Part A: Graphs can be difficult for students to understand, especially graphs that go back in time from left to right. You might want to spend some time helping students wrap their minds around the glacial age graphs and what they mean. If students are struggling, consider printing the graphs on an overhead transparency and "flipping it over" so that time increases from left to right.
If students need extra support for understanding the Milankovitch cycles, direct them to one or more of the resources in the Content Extensions section below.
In Part B: Before doing this activity with your students, it is recommended that you go through it yourself to familiarize yourself with the data and the procedures. If time permits, do the optional extension activity, Tropical Ice Cores, to show students another example of the cryosphere at lower latitudes. You might also consider assigning this section as homework if your students have access to computers outside of class.
Suggestions for how to use Student Notebooks for Lab 4:
- Have students write down the learning objectives for Lab 4.
- Have students record answers to all Stop and Think questions.
- Have students record answers to all Discussion questions.
- In Part B: Have students take notes and write down any questions they have as they watch the ice core video.
- In Part C: Have students take notes and write down any questions they have as they step through the EarthSwings interactive.
- Have students write down any questions they still have about the content covered in this lab.
There are several options for assessment of student understanding of material introduced in this lab. Choose from the following list, or create your own assessments.
State and National Science Teaching Standards
Lab 4 addresses the following Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Disciplinary Core Ideas:
HS-ESS1: Earth's Place in the Universe
ESS1.B: Earth and the Solar System
2. Cyclical changes in the shape of Earth's orbit around the sun, together with changes in the tilt of the planet's axis of rotation, both occurring over hundreds of thousands of years, have altered the intensity and distribution of sunlight falling on the earth. These phenomena cause a cycle of ice ages and other gradual climate changes (secondary to HS-ESS2-4)
HS-ESS2: Earth's Systems
ESS2.A: Earth's Materials and Systems
3. The geological record shows that changes to global and regional climate can be caused by interactions among changes in the sun's energy output or Earth's orbit, tectonic events, ocean circulation, volcanic activity, glaciers, vegetation, and human activities. These changes can occur on a variety of time scales from sudden (e.g., volcanic ash clouds) to intermediate (ice ages) to very long-term tectonic cycles (HS-ESS2-4)
- Past Variability Report (Acrobat (PDF) 14.1MB Jun14 11): summarizes the current knowledge of the past climate of the Arctic and discusses its relevance to key questions about present and future changes of relevance to policy makers and stakeholders.
- Milankovitch Cycles tutorial
- National Geographic video explaining Milankovitch cycles
- The Encyclopedia of Earth article on Milankovitch Cycles
- Vostok Core and Milankovic Cycles Climate Applet: Interactive applet (still under development) with animation and graphs designed to help students visualize the Milankovitch Cycles.
- To supplement the ice core activities with a hands-on experiment, have students do the Ice Cores—Exploring the History of Climate Change lab from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Climate Change Guide. NOTE: Allow up to 5 days for preparation before beginning this lab exercise with students.
- To learn more about ice cores, read the NASA Earth Observatory featured article Paleoclimatology: The Ice Record.
- NOVA Video: Secrets Beneath the Ice: Is Antarctica headed for a catastrophic meltdown? New evidence of ancient climate change may hold clues. Watch this 52 minute video to learn about the secrets beneath the ice.