Glacier Goo Erosion Experiments

Rachel Headley, University of Wisconsin-Parkside
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Using a glacier proxy, students design an experiment to connect glacial erosion with glacial flow. Students choose from a variety of materials, determined what question they want their experiment or experiments to answer, design the procedure, test the experiment, and write up a lab report on the experiment.

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This activity can be used in a mid- or upper-level glacial geology or geomorphology course in a geology or Earth science major.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be qualitatively familiar with glacial flow, including sliding, deformation, cross-glacier flow, and changes with depth. Students should also be familiar with the processes of abrasion and plucking/quarrying with regard to glaciers. Effects of water on glacial flow and erosion could also be covered but this is not necessary. Being able to compare glacial erosion to fluvial erosion could also be helpful.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a laboratory experiment and lab writeup that is situated after lectures on glacier flow and erosion. Students have already used some of the materials (including the glacier goo) for a lab on glacier flow.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Content goals: Deeper understanding of glacier motion and glacier erosion through an experiment and experimental write-up.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Use of an analog model of a glacier. Synthesis of prior knowledge of glacier flow and erosion to make an experimental question

Other skills goals for this activity

Writing a lab report and summary that someone else could follow to recreate their experiment. Working with others to test their experiment ideas.

Description and Teaching Materials

There are not too many labs on glacier erosion: some involve putting ice cubes in a sandbox and seeing how material moves as they melt, which is fairly simple. Using glacier goo along with a variety of other materials, design an experiment to study glacial erosion and how it ties to glacier motion and/or water content.

Glacier Goo & Erosion Handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 90kB Jun3 14)
Example Student Response (Microsoft Word 26kB Jun3 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Some experiments will work much better than others. We had access to materials such as sand, foil, cooking oil (for a lubricated bed), U-shaped valleys (half-pipes), gravel, and water and tubing. Data collection tools were simple, such as stop watches and rulers.
This is a very free form activity, and the classroom can get a bit chaotic. Some students really enjoyed being able to design their own experiments and got really creative. Others needed more prodding, which is why there is a list of possible processes to test in the handout.


Because many experiments did not end up actually working, assessment was based more on the write ups of the experiment. Students should have questions that the experiment seeks to answer; they should outline materials needed and steps needed for the experiment. They should discuss or list how data should be collected and analyzed and potential problems with the experiment. Finally, they should also include a list or discussion of further variables to test.

References and Resources : Experiments on glacier flow and the recipe for glacier goo can be found here.