EarthLabs > Climate and the Cryosphere > Lab 5: Evidence of Recent Change > 5C: Ice-Albedo Feedback

Interactions and Feedback

Part C: Ice-Albedo Feedback

Ice-Albedo Feedback

Feedback loop
Feedback Loops. Image Source: SERC.
As you might recall from earlier in this unit, feedback is the exchange between the input and output of a system. Feedback can be either reinforcing or balancing.

A reinforcing feedback loopreinforcing feedback loop: feedback in which an action produces a result that influences more of the same action, thus resulting in growth or decline. (sometimes referred to as a "positive feedback loop") creates conditions that speed up a process and/or amplifies an effect, tending to push a system towards extreme states or behaviors. Other words and phrases associated with reinforcing feedback loops are vicious circle, snowball effect, domino effect, feeds back in on itself, run-away change, and self-reinforcing loop.

A balancing feedback loopbalancing feedback loop: feedback in which an action produces a result that slows down and/or dampens an effect, tending to push a system towards stability. (sometimes referred to as a "negative feedback loop") creates conditions that make a process slow down and/or dampens an effect, tending to push a system towards stability. Other words and phrases associated with balancing feedback loops are dampening, restores balance, and reducing.


Connection Circles: Identifying Causal Connections

(adapted from The Shape of Change)

Causal connectionscausal connection: the relationship of cause and effect. are another way to describe "cause and effect" relationships. Systems thinkers use Connection Circles as a graphical tool to identify and understand changes and their causal connections in complex systems. When thinking about causal connections, it is helpful to think about them in "If...then " statements. The "If..." represents the cause; the "then..." represents the effect. As you use the Connection Circle in the activity below, you will find that these "If...then" statements will interconnect in many ways.

Because of their high reflectivity, snow and ice are instrumental in regulating Earth's temperature. If climate warms, then snow and ice will melt. Then what? Let's explore.

Materials you will need:

  1. Pencils and colored pencils or markers
  2. A Connections Circle diagram or draw one on your own. Larger paper is best.
  3. Ice-Albedo Feedback "Element Strips"


Print and neatly cut out.

SEA ICE MELTS

A WARMING CLIMATE

CO2 IN ATMOSPHERE

GLACIERS & ICE SHEETS GROW

DARKER GROUND/WATER IS EXPOSED

GREATER HEAT ABSORPTION

ALBEDO (REFLECTIVITY) INCREASES

ALBEDO (REFLECTIVITY) DECREASES

OCEAN TRADE ROUTES OPEN

SEA LEVEL RISES

FRESH DRINKING WATER SUPPLY DECREASES


Setting up your Ice-Albedo Feedback Connection Circle.

(Adapted from The Shape of Life)
  1. Draw a large circle on a piece of paper or use a connection circle template.
  2. Cut out the "elements of the story" strips and spread them out on the table.
  3. Put "Sea Ice Melts" at the top outside of the circle.
  4. Place the other strips around the outside edge of the remaining circle.
  5. Starting at the "Sea Ice Melts" element, draw an arrow to your first causal connection. Make sure you draw your arrows from the "cause" to the "effect."
  6. Continue identifying causal connections until you have drawn at least seven arrows.
  7. Carefully examine the arrows in your Ice-Albedo Feedback Connection Circle. Choose one element (for example, "albedo decreases") and start to look for arrows that "loop back" to your beginning element. This is a feedback loop. For each loop that you find, trace it with a different color pencil or marker.
  8. Choose one loop and draw it on a separate piece of paper. Indicate whether each arrow leads to an increase (+) or a decrease (-) in the next element. Follow the same process for any other loops you have found on your connection circle.
  9. Next, you will identify each loop as either a "reinforcing feedback loop" or a "balancing feedback loop." Here is how you tell the difference:
    • In a reinforcing feedback loop, the final arrow leading back to the originating element is a (+) arrow representing an increase or "amplification."
    • In a balancing feedback loop, the final arrow leading back to the originating element is an (-) arrow representing a decrease or dampening effect.

    Hint: There can be both (-) and (+) arrows in a feedback loop, but the last arrow is the most important.


Discussion

Share your connection circle and feedback loops with other groups or the class.

  • Are the Connection Circles in the classroom all the same? Identify some similarities and some differences.
  • Compare the feedback loops you found in the Ice-Albedo Feedback Connection Circle. Does the feedback loop reinforce/amplify the initial change or balance/dampen it? What makes you think so?


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