EarthLabs for Educators > Climate and the Cryosphere > Lab 4: Climate History & the Cryosphere

Lab 4: Climate History & the Cryosphere

The lab activity described here was developed by Erin Bardar of TERC for the EarthLabs project.

Open the Student Activity in a New Window 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

Ice sheets contain a record of hundreds of thousands of years of past climate, trapped in the ancient snow. Scientists recover this climate history by drilling cores in the ice, some of them over 3,500 meters (11,000 feet) deep. These photographs show experimental drilling on the Greenland Ice Cap in summer 2005. Image Credit: Reto Stöckli, NASA GSFC. Image Source: NASA Earth Observatory.

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:

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

Detailed overview of what students will do in each lab activity, how long it will take, and what materials are required to complete the lab.

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

Printable Materials

Download and print files needed for each lab activity, including images, data tables, and Stop and Think questions.

Right-click (Win) or control-click (Mac) the linked text below and choose File > Save As... to save files to your computer.

Teaching Notes and Tips

General recommendations for classroom implementation as well as guidelines and facilitation tips for leading class discussions.

General Recommendations:
  • Read through the lab and teacher resources BEFORE implementing with your students.
  • Print out any paper-based materials before starting the lab.
  • Have students keep a journal or notebook to record all of their notes, questions, and findings.

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.

Student Notebooks

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.

Assessment Options:
  1. Assess student understanding of topics addressed in this investigation by grading their written responses to the Stop and Think questions or by using Stop and Think questions as part of whole-class or small group discussions.
  2. Written Test for Lab 4 (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 87kB Jan11 13). (Test key (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 245kB Jan11 13))

National Science Teaching Standards

Lab 4 supports the following Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS):

Science and Engineering Practices
4. Analyzing and interpreting data
7. Engaging in argument from evidence

Disciplinary Core Ideas
HS.ESS2.A: Earth's Materials and Systems
HS.ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes
HS.ESS2.D: Weather and Climate
HS.ESS1.B: Earth and the Solar System

Cross-Cutting Concepts
1. Patterns
2. Cause and effect
4. Systems and system models
5. Energy and matter
7. Stability and change

Go to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)

Additional Resources

Explore background information and content extensions related to Lab 4.

Background Information

  • 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.

Content Extension

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