Reading History Within an Ice Core

Thursday 4:30pm-5:30pm Red Gym
Poster Session


Jason Cervenec, Ohio State University-Main Campus

During this activity, teams of students are provided with one of two varieties of simulated ice cores that showcase some of the components examined by scientists. After a few minutes of free exploration, students are challenged to create a list of observations and draw a detailed diagram of their ice core which is shared during a series of brief, whole-class presentations. Groups are asked to determine which groups have the same ice from their diagrams alone, after which the cores are placed side by side for comparison. Provided with additional information, teams are asked to label the individual years on their diagram and create a corresponding timeline of events that occurred during the interval preserved within the core. These timelines are shared during a culminating, whole-class discussion.


  1. Observation and inference skills are critical to scientists.
  2. When communicating, clearly drawn diagrams and timelines can help convey information.
  3. One layer is laid down in a glacier each year. Older layers are toward the bottom of the ice core.
  4. Each layer contains information about the amount of precipitation that was received that year.
  5. Each layer contains information about environmental conditions in the atmosphere when that layer was created.

This activity has been used successfully with the hundreds of elementary, middle, and high school students who visit our researcher facility each year. For younger audiences, the activity takes about 50 minutes to complete in its entirety. With older audiences, it serves as a brief introduction to ice cores before students are engaged in a longer investigation of actual ice core data. In either format, the lesson provides students with an opportunity to interact with and glean information from an ice core. Nonetheless, the lesson's greater goal is to demonstrate how scientists work to reconstruct Earth's past conditions using evidence that has been preserved in components of the Earth system (tree rings and ocean sediment cores are examples of other climate proxies) and that communication of that information happens orally and in writing. Many students recognize the similarity between analyzing ice layers with looking at stratigraphy in the rock record, content commonly taught in the middle school years.

Our outreach team has fine-tuned this activity with a diverse group of students (elementary, middle, and high school; urban, suburban, and rural) over the past three years. Teacher feedback has allowed us to make improvements to the lesson and also recognize its enduring value to students who visit our faculty. All of the materials are low-cost, although a few minutes each day over a week need to be allocated to pouring the simulated ice cores. The principles that are taught in this lesson are applicable beyond the narrow domain of ice cores to the overall use of layering in the Earth sciences to understand past conditions.

Presentation Media

Create Classroom Ice Cores (Acrobat (PDF) 7.8MB Jul17 16)