Earth's Cryosphere: Baby It's Cold Outside

Initial Publication Date: August 13, 2015

Time required to complete this unit:

This page is under development and may be edited at any time. Some resources have not been cataloged, pending project approval.
3 weeks, or 12.5 hours, or 750 minutes(estimated)

Earth Science Content:

Key Terms: Cryosphere, glacier, climate change, albedo, reflectivity, positive feedback loop, negative feedback loop

Unit Storyline

All the cold frozen parts of our planet make up the cryosphere. This includes the continental ice sheets found in Greenland and Antarctica, glaciers, and areas of snow and permafrost. The cryosphere also includes the sea ice in the Arctic and ocean waters around Antarctica, and frozen rivers and lakes. Incoming solar radiation is reflected back into space from the frozen surface of the cryosphere. The amount of reflected energy depends on how much of the surface of the Earth is covered by glaciers and ice. For this reason, the cryosphere plays powerful role in modulating Earth 's climate, helping to keep Earth habitable for humans. Much of the cryosphere is close to melting temperatures, therefore it is vulnerable to a warming climate. When warming occurs, sea ice retreats and glaciers melt, resulting in changes to weather patterns and natural climate cycles, and resulting in rising sea level, which in turn may give rise to extreme weather events and causing flooding of coastal cities and towns around the world.

Seventy-five percent of the world's fresh water is found in continental ice sheets and glaciers. Some of the water stored in ice sheets, glaciers and snow is an important as a source of water for communities and agriculture. Climate change has increased melting of the cryosphere. The melt water that could have become our future drinking water is lost to the saline seas where it will be difficult and expensive to extract. In this unit we learn about the importance of the cryosphere and consider how future changes will impact life on Earth.

Developed by TERC for EarthLabs. Field-tested by Texas and Mississippi teachers.

Students will be able to (do)

  • Learn about the how climate and the cryosphere influence each other.
  • Use sea ice index data to see changes in the extent of the sea ice over a certain time period.
  • Use an online interactive in order to explore how glaciers provide climate change evidence.
  • Make a model glacier and conduct an investigation into glacial movement using the model.
  • Explore the evidence of recent changes in the cryosphere.
  • Explore the ice-albedo feedback loop.
  • Learn about climate models and build a model to demonstrate what happens to sea level rise dependent upon the type of ice (land or sea).

Students will know

  • What are the components of the cryosphere, where they are found on Earth, and its importance to Earth's habitability.
  • The differences between sea ice and land ice and what the effects are when there are changes in their extents.
  • How and why the cryosphere changes over time and space.
  • The timescales associated with changes in the cryosphere.
  • The impacts and implications of changes in the cryosphere.
  • That climate models can help predict possible future changes in the cryosphere and the potential impacts from these changes.


The activities we have selected are congruent with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and are arranged to build upon one another. Therefore, to follow the storyline we recommend that teachers complete the activities in the order provided. To open an activity in a new tab or window, right click the activity link and select the preferred option.

Climate and the Cryosphere

View Activity

This unit introduces students to many of the complex issues surrounding the cryosphere and its connections to climate. It includes articles, hands-on lab activities, videos, data analysis, maps, graphs, and online interactives which will help learners to understand how snow and ice interact with water, air, land, and life to regulate and reflect Earth's climate conditions.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry, Modeling

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 750 minutes for all labs

The linked titles are directed to the teacher pages. Lab activities that are contained within this module are as follows:

Getting to Know the Cryosphere teaches about the components of the cryosphere, annual changes in land and sea ice coverage, and ways that changes in the cryosphere are impacting human life. Online learning activities that use visualizations and video-enhanced instruction.

Earth's Frozen Ocean has students explore properties of liquid and frozen salt water and how sea ice formation influences ocean currents, in Part A. Online learning activities involving learners in hands-on experimentation. In Part B students then explore how sea ice thickness changes over time. Finally, in Part C, students will use NSIDC sea ice index data to explore changes in sea ice extent on multiple time scales including months, years, and decades.forces that influence sea ice dynamics, as well as changes in the distribution and composition of sea ice change over time. Developed by TERC for EarthLabs. Online learning activities that utilize several instructional strategies, including guided inquiry using real data and interactive visualizations, model building, and video-enhanced instruction.

Land Ice Thermodynamics. Students learn about land ice and the processes and timescales involved in glaciation. In Part B, they use an online interactive to explore how glaciers provide scientists with evidence for climate change. Online learning activities that utilize several instructional strategies, including guided inquiry using real data and visualizations, model building, and video-enhanced instruction.

Glacier Dynamics. Students learn about how and why glaciers move and make a model of a glacier. Online learning activities that utilize guided inquiry using real data and visualizations, model building, and video-enhanced instruction.

Interactions and Feedback. Students explore the ice-albedo feedback effect and learn how the reflectivity of ice helps regulate the planet's temperature. Online learning activities that utilize guided inquiry using interactive visualizations, model building, video-enhanced instruction and hands-on experimentation.

Climate History and the Cryosphere. Students learn how scientists use ice cores from all over the world to glean information about past climate. Online learning activities that utilize guided inquiry using interactive visualizations, analysis of real data, and vide0-enhanced instruction.

Future of the Cryosphere. Students contemplate what the future might hold for climate and the cryosphere. Online learning activities that utilize guided inquiry using interactive visualizations, analysis of real data, and hands-on experimentation.

Field Trips

Studies that examine how geologists think and learn about the Earth point to the value of field experiences in helping students develop practices that constitute geologic reasoning. We encourage teachers to take students into the field as much as possible. To this end, we include ideas for virtual and actual field trips. The former recognizes the limitations of the K-12 classroom setting. Field learning provides a chance to encourage the ability to see features that are important to professional practice. Indeed, many geoscientists report that fieldwork was a key factor influencing their choice of geoscience as a career.

Virtual Field Trips

Open Source

The website is maintained by the University of Exeter and provides three virtual field trips of the cryosphere. Students can visit Greenland, Svalbard and the cryosphere at the Arctic and the Antarctic. Each trip contains photos and/or videos and text with explanations and descriptions.

Scaffolding Notes

Teachers must develop their own individual plan for how they will teach the unit. The learning activities and educational resources in this unit are intended to complement other instructional activities led by the teacher. Many of the selected learning experiences provide links to excellent background preparatory materials, additional hands-on resources, teaching tips, and cross-curricular connections.

Teachers will need to create their own multimedia presentations, deliver lectures and assign ancillary work to their students in order to set the stage for effective use of the learning activities contained herein. Therefore, it is imperative to allocate time to review the activities and background material prior to using the learning experiences in this unit and to probe students for their prior knowledge before starting an activity.

In addition, although some activities may incorporate assessments, teachers may need to create their own assessments to ensure that are appropriate for the students they teach.

Asterisks (*) indicate teacher resource and background information recommendations for activity support.


*This unit is implemented using the entire series of activities from the EarthLabs Climate and the Cryosphere module.

*For navigating through Earthlabs modules look to the left-hand side of the web page. Please remember that the Teacher Navigation Menu has a green background and the Student Navigation Menu has a white background.

Preparing to Teach an Earthlabs Climate Module gives an overview of all modules in the series, as well as giving relevant background information and science notes that help to prepare teachers and students to work through the modules.

Climate and the Cryosphere: Unit Overview takes a look at why we should teach about the link between climate and the cryosphere.

The 'Lab Overviews' page gives a brief description of each lab and links to the student pages. Each lab activity teacher page includes a brief summary, overview of the activity and needed materials, download and print files, teaching notes and tips, suggestions for student notebook use, assessment options, NGSS standards, and any additional resources.

*There is also an EarthLabs App for iPad that teachers and students can downloaded to interact with the visualizations. For this unit, 2A: Ocean Circulation and 4C: Ice Swings are on the interactive menu.

Climate and the Cryosphere is one of four modules in the EarthLabs Collection that explicitly teaches about Earth's climate system. We recommend that teachers read the information contained in EarthLabs for Educators and Policy Makers.

Next Generation Science Standards

We anticipate that students should be able to achieve the NGSS Performance Expectation(s) listed after completing the activities in this unit. However, we have not carried out educational research to verify this.

HS-ESS2-2. Analyze geoscience data to make the claim that one change to Earth's surface can create feedbacks that cause changes to other Earth systems.

HS-ESS3-5. Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.

These Performance Expectations integrate the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Cross Cutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices of the NGSS as shown in the unit table NGSS Congruence: Earth's Cryosphere: Baby It's Cold Outside (Acrobat (PDF) 184kB Jan24 16).

Additional Resources

The recommended additional resources may be used to extend or augment the storyline.

The Cryosphere Today

This website is maintained by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Polar Research Group and documents the current state of cryosphere.

Live units may have permissions pending and are subject to revision.