Ice Sheets, Ice Cores, and Sea Ice

We've had wonderful questions and comments on our Polar Science discussion thread.  We think it might be a good idea to start a new thread about these important topics: Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets, Ice Cores, and Sea Ice.  I will copy to this discussion thread the comments we have already had about these specific topics.  So you'll see the first three or four comments on both of our polar discussions.  Now, look here for some upcoming classroom activities and resources related to these topics.  Check out the other discussion thread, "Using Polar Sciences in Adult Basic Education" to continue our discussions on other topics in polar sciences.


I've just been watching a PBS NOVA video entitled "Extreme Ice".  It contains a short video that can be viewed via PBS Learning Media:  Ice-Core Record of Climate

This program is an investigation into the changes in the Greenland Ice Sheet and the Antarctic Ice Sheet.  Lynn, you have been in Greenland with a group of students.  Have you been studying the changes in the ice sheet there?  You've also made trips to research sites (and ice sheets?) in Antarctica.  What educational materials can you suggest for us?  I would imagine there are lots of opportunities for the practice of mathematical problem solving.  Sam, Lisa, and Krista, do changes in the polar ice sheets affect your research now, or your planning for future research?

Hi Everyone,

While my research in the Bering Sea is not directly impacted by changes in ice sheets over land, it is highly impacted by changes in sea ice. Since sea ice often contains ice algae, when ice is present there may be an early spring food source (ice algae) for zooplankton like krill and copepods that need to begin feeding to reproduce and grow. In years when the ice (and ice algae) does not extend as far south in the Bering Sea, the zooplankton in this region may not be able to get food until phytoplankton begin to grow, which can occur a month of two later. So changes in the extent of sea ice can affect the abundance of ice algae and zooplankton, and animals that feed on zooplankton (fish, marine bird, whales, seals, etc). These processes area also important in Antarctica, where this video on krill feeding was taken:


Susan, you are correct -- the students participating in the Joint Science Education Project have investigated changes in the ice sheet in Greenland by placing an ablation stake (a long bamboo pole) and then going back in a couple of weeks to check to see the difference in the amount of the stake that was then exposed.  It was stunning to see the difference in such a short amount of time!

Here is an excerpt from a student journal:  "We measure ablation, or the melting of glacial ice, by drilling 1 meter deep holes in the ice. ... We were able to measure how much the ice melted in a week by inserting bamboo poles into the boreholes. When we returned today, we saw a landscape transformed. The entire area had decreased in height by almost half a meter."

In 2012, we witnessed the incredible melt event that saw nearly all of the Ice Sheet experiencing some melt.  The Watson River at Kangerlussuaq grew into such a torrent with melt water that it took out the bridge!  Last year, while at Summit Station, our group visited a back-lit snowpit in order to learn more about winter vs. summer snow layers, and the melt event showed clearly as a bright layer of ice.  

We also were taught the process by which snow becomes firn and then glacial ice through the layering and compression process.  This helped us to understand the importance of the ice cores from both Greenland and Antarctica.  These cores provide a record of the climate thousands of years ago because of the tiny bubbles of air trapped within them.  I hope to provide a link soon to an "Ice Core Timeline" created by Zoe Courville and drawn by Sam Carbaugh.  It is a great example of a multidisciplinary visual that connects an Ice Core to world/earth/human events.  I also hope to make available to you a "Climate Comic" on ice cores, again created by Zoe and Sam.  This might be a useful "hook" to engage some students for whom a text-dense passage about ice cores in a journal or textbook may be a bit intimidating.

I highly recommend checking out the U.S. Ice Drilling Office website, . Under the Education link (, you will find lessons, photographs (of a back-lit snowpit, and ice cores, for example), posters, etc.   For instance, one excellent activity/lesson is entitled, "Polar Detectives:  Using Ice Core Data to Decode Past Climate Mysteries".  One of my favorite new resources that this office created is the video "Polar Science and Engineering:  Drillling Back in Time" .  

Another excellent resource for learning more about ice cores is the National Ice Core Laboratory (  Go to the "About Ice Cores" section of the website to find a Video Gallery containing many excellent videos that explain the process of drilling, storing, and sampling ice cores as well as the information obtained from the cores that give scientists insight into the Earth's climate thousands of years ago.

Later in the week, I plan to share a math-based lesson/activity on another ice topic:  the decreasing extent of Arctic sea ice.

Hello everyone,

These resources that others have posted: great stuff, & thanks! I've now got a lot of new ideas about how to explain better some of the important take-home messages about ice in polar regions.

One website I tend to visit a lot is the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder Colorado. They provide access to much of the sea ice data I use in my own research, but they also provide a variety of materials for education. Here's the link to their multimedia page:

One item on this page that I like is a link to a video from NASA called "The Tour of the Cryosphere" (linked at the top left). Following that link will get you to the NASA page where you can download the video (5 mins) in a range of formats (e.g., for iphone or ipad or laptop). I like this video a lot for several reasons, but for one thing in particular. The video starts in Antarctica, but on the way to the Arctic it follows the Andes and Rockies, showing ice cover there too. This points out something we don't often talk about in polar research: that there are regions of the planet at latitudes that are not technically 'polar' but which also have ice cover that is experiencing changes quite similar to what we see in the Arctic and Antarctic. You may have heard the Tibetan Plateau (the Himalayas) referred to as the 'third pole', partly for this reason. This NASA video makes the important point that loss of long-term ice cover is occurring not only at the actual poles that we are used to thinking about, but also at lower latitudes too, even in the continental US. Anyone who has visited Glacier National Park in the past ten years will probably have seen the old photos of what the area looked like only a generation ago.


Krista and Sam have given us some great multimedia resources that enrich the list that we are collecting from Lynn and others!  Krista gives us links to sample data, information on how to use computer programs or tracing paper to analyze the satellite images, and hands-on experience with satellite images.  Sam reminds us of the "Third Pole" and other mountain ranges.  He highlights the wealth of resources from NASA and from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.  This also gives us insight into the tools used by scientists...what would we do without satellite images?  Lisa has mentioned the important jobs in data analysis.  Thank you, all!

I can add to the list of educational materials already developed for Antarctica.

Several years ago, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute developed a K-12 curriculum on studying the ocean using satellites. The project was originally funded by NASA, and is still available on-line (, follow the links to 'Space Available'). One of the sections is on Antarctica, and it includes a variety of activities appropriate for polar regions. With respect to Antarctica, there is an activity which  is designed to show students how to use satellite imagery to examine temporal variability in sea ice. The section is called 'Changes in Antarctic Ice' and it includes a description of the tools used, links to sample data, and how to use computer programs or tracing paper to analyze the satellite images. Finally, it ends with a series of questions for the students to consider as they go through the activity. While this activity could be done for Antarctica or the Arctic, the sample images provided by the Gulf of Maine Aquarium are for the Antarctic.

One of the reasons I like this activity is that students can get hands-on experience with satellite images and freely-available programs to analyze any sort of digital images. The activity was originally described with a program called NIH Image, which is now updated as ImageJ. Anyone can download and use this program.

Have fun.


Here is a lesson on Arctic Sea Ice Extent that can be adapted for use in many different math classes, from Algebra I to Calculus.  (Go to the Documents tab to download.)

It combines a little history and science with some data analysis.  I like that it provides students with practice in connecting slope to a rate of change!   I also like that it exposes students to real scientific data, and there are a variety of questions that require students to answer in context, using appropriate units of measurement.  

How do you think you might use such a lesson?  What would you change/omit/add?

Thanks for posting this link!  I agree, I like that it connects slope and rate of change but also this is a real world application.  So many times learners don't understand why algebra is important, they continually say that letters shouldn't be in math.  But this lesson is good for showing application of these concepts.  

How I might change this lesson is that it seems to be lengthy, so I might remove some of the questions or I might split it up over several days so that students aren't overwhelmed by the workload.  Additionally, there would need to be some instruction on these concepts prior to this application or at least some discussion.

Thanks for sharing.


Thanks, Brooke, for telling us how you would change the lesson.  I agree that it could easily be spread out over several days.  Would you suggest that students work in groups for this project?  Have you found that technique to be successful?


For those of you that have been intrigued by the discussion, here is a message from Polar Educators, International (PEI), regarding an opportunity to learn more about Ice Sheets and Sea Level Rise.

Polar Educators, International (PEI), an international organization created to sustain and enhance the many successful education initiatives begun under the last International Polar Year (, is pleased to announce the development of a new Master Class series targeting a dual audience: educators seeking cutting-edge professional development on the latest polar science discoveries and researchers interested in learning proven tactics for communicating scientific concepts in a clear and meaningful way.

We welcome your support in getting the word out to your graduate students, early career researchers, and educational contacts about the first class, “Slip Sliding Away: Ice Sheets and Sea Level Rise,” to be held 7-23 May 2014.

Featuring leading researcher Dr. Richard Alley and polar educator, Ms. Nell Herrmann the class is being offered free to all participants. Membership in PEI is required for participation in Master Class activities. Registration is due by 2 May 2014, with the initial web seminar taking place Wednesday, 7 May 2014 @ 8PM EDT/Thursday, 8 May 2014 @ 0000 GMT.

Further information on how to participate is available at: