Lab 3: Mountains of Ice

The lab activity was developed by Jeff Lockwood of TERC and Alison Mote of the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders for the EarthLabs project.

Summary and Learning Objectives

In Part A of this activity, students investigate how massive ice sheets can alter the landscape and deposit their sediments in the ocean. In Part B, students examine the phenomena that trigger the onset of ice building and subsequent periods of ice melting—Milankovich Cycles.

After completing this Lab, students should be able to:

  • Explain how the advance and retreat of glaciers affect rates of deposition and other Earth processes.
  • Describe the processes that enable glaciers and ice sheets to increase the rate of sedimentation at ocean margins.
  • Identify the climate cycles and explain what causes them.
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    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: Glaciers and Ice Sheets

    In Part A, students explore the nature of glaciers and ice sheets. They watch a video (Time-Lapse Video: Retreating Glacier) that shows them how glaciers retreat and how calving takes place. Then they view an animation that shows the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet over the past 20,000 years.

    Time estimate: 25 minutes

    In Part B: Why Do Ice Sheets Advance and Retreat

    Students watch a video presented by Richard Alley that describes the Milankovic cycles, variations in the orbital characteristics of Earth that lead to changes in climate. Students fill out a table summarizing the nature and period of each cycle. Then students interpret two graphs that show changes in climate over the past 5.5 million years that were caused by the Milankovic cycles.

    Time estimate: 25 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.
    • Lab 3 Stop and Think Questions (
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    • Table B handout (PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 23kB Jul23 15) Word (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 35kB Feb11 14))

    Teaching Notes and Tips

    What you need to prepare ahead of time, and 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 introducing it to 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: Students watch two videos and an animation to learn about how glaciers and ice sheets erode the land then deposit sediments in the ocean as icebergs break off the edge of the ice sheet.

    Facilitation Tips:

  • If you show the video from your computer, pause the video at one or two minute intervals so students can take notes and ask questions.
  • At the end of the Retreating Glacier video, point out the sediment that is visible in the glacier (lateral moraines).
  • Note that the calving process occurs any time an ice shelf projects over an ocean margin. This is an important point since an increase in sedimentation in an ocean basin is indicative of a cold climate, and an advancing ice sheet, not a melting, receding glacier as shown in the first two videos.

  • Wrap Up: Go over the Stop and Think questions with students to make sure they realize that finding dropstones indicates a colder climate. If uniform layers of mud and fine sand are present in a core, this indicates warmer temperatures.

    In Part B: Students learn about the 3 Milankovic cycles by watching a video and filling out a table.

    Facilitation Tips:

  • If you show the Milankovic Cycle video on your computer, pause after each cycle description and field any student questions.
  • Point out to students that the diagrams used in the video are not to scale, in fact, not even close. Explain that the eccentricity of Earth's orbit is so small that the orbit would look like a perfect circle if seen from above the plane of the solar system.

    Wrap Up: Discuss with students whether or not the Milankovic Cycles might explain current global climate change. After students voice their views on the subject, display the Climate Change: How Do We Know graphic. Point out just how steeply the carbon dioxide levels, and subsequent temperature increases, is compared to natural cycles.

  • It might be fun for students to demonstrate these three motions using their heads and bodies. Have them pair up and run through the cycles together.

    Optional: Use a hula hoop, as Richard Alley did in the video, to demonstrate how the eccentricity of Earth's orbit changes.

  • Student Notebooks

    Suggestions for how to use Student Notebooks for Lab 3.

    The following items are suggestions for inclusion in optional printed student notebooks. The materials are linked in the Printable Materials section, above.
    • Key Questions listed in introduction to lab
    • Stop and Think questions
    • Table B: Milankovic Cycles

    Assessment

    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 responses to the Stop and Think questions.
    2. Teachers may decide to collect and grade Table B.
    3. Written Test for Lab 3 (
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      Suggested Answers


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  • Science Standards

    Lab 3 supports the following Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS):

    Disciplinary Core Ideas
    HS.ESS2A Earth Materials and Systems

    Science and Engineering Practices
    #2 Developing and Using Models
    #4 Analyzing and Interpreting Data #8 Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

    Cross Cutting Concepts

    #1 Patterns
    #2 Cause and Effect
    #3 Scale, Proportion, and Quantity
    #7 Stability and Change

    Examples of how students engage with the standards:


    Go to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)


    Additional Resources

    Explore background information and content extensions related to Lab 3.

    Background information

  • The Encyclopedia of Earth article on Milankovitch Cycles
  • Snow and Ice Data Center
  • Article: Glaciers and ice sheets in the Arctic
  • Content Extensions

  • [link updated to https://vimeo.com/105279047 'School of Sustainability at ASU's video explaining Milankovitch cycles' new]
  • Vostok Core and Milankovic Cycles Climate Applet: Interactive applet with animation and graphs designed to help students visualize the Milankovitch Cycles.
  • A NASA simulation where learners explore different examples of how ice is melting due to climate change. Global Ice Viewer