Teaching Notes

example output

Example output

Screenshot of Yakutsk borehole temperature graph for January, in Microsoft Excel, overlaid on Google Earth map of borehole locations. Click the image for a larger view.

Grade Level

This activity is designed to enable users to access datasets from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Using Microsoft Excel, users will examine possible relationships between changes in surface air temperature and changes in permafrost temperature and coverage. It can be used with students in grades 7-14.

Learning Goals

After completing this chapter, students will be able to:
  • Describe long-term changes in permafrost temperatures;
  • Describe long-term changes in surface air temperatures;
  • Visually display relationships between permafrost temperatures and surface air temperatures;
  • Overlay two sets of data to demonstrate relationships and trends;
  • Use technology in the classroom to analyze authentic scientific data sets;
  • Plot tabular data as graphs and examine trends to make predictions; and
  • Discover that analysis must be conducted within limitations of the data.


Although students will be conducting their analyses on a remote area of Siberia, the skills and knowledge gained by completing this chapter will enable them to apply their learning to other similar areas of the world. Additionally, student should also be able to project how permafrost conditions in Siberia might continue to deteriorate if current trends continue.

Background Information

To begin this chapter, students need baseline knowledge of permafrost and its characteristics. "Permafrost" is technically defined as perennially frozen ground, soil, or sediment; the area must remain at or below 0° C for at least two consecutive years to be categorized as permafrost. It is not necessarily comprised of ice, though it can be; surfaces underlain by permafrost can also be covered with snow or remain entirely bare. The moisture content of permafrost is highly variable and one of the difficulties that scientists face when determining the extent and/or decrease in permafrost coverage. These areas can be on land as well as under oceanic continental shelves. Permafrost layers can range dramatically in thickness from one meter to more than 1000 meters.

Vladimir Romanovsky, a leading scientist in the field, gives a general overview of the effects of the changing permafrost landscape in this interview: Vladimir Romanovsky on the Current State of Permafrost. His interview and companion image gallery give detailed information on the issues concerning permafrost thaw. You can also search the site for additional and recent information about change in the polar regions.

Many other resources, such as the ones listed below, are available for more detailed information.

Additional Resources

Key Terms and Prerequisite Knowledge

The following terms and definitions, as well as many others related to the cryosphere, can be found in the National Snow and Ice Data Center's NSIDC Glossary
Deviation of a meteorological quantity value in a given region from the normal (mean) value.
Carbon sink
An environmental reservoir that absorbs and stores more carbon than it releases.
Layer of soil or rock, at some depth beneath the surface, in which the temperature has been continuously below 0°C for at least two consecutive years; it exists where summer thawing fails to reach the base of the layer of frozen ground.
Surface Air Temperature
The ambient temperature indicated by a thermometer exposed to the air but sheltered from direct solar radiation, or placed in an instrument shelter 1.5 - 2.0 meters (5.0 - 6.6 feet) above ground; also called air temperature.
A layer or body of unfrozen ground occurring in a permafrost area due to a local anomaly in thermal, hydrological, hydro-geological, or hydro-chemical conditions. The layer remains unfrozen year-round.

Instructional Strategies

The lesson begins with the fictional Case Study that highlights the Siberian village of Chersky, Russia. Changes there in the underlying permafrost impact the daily lives of village inhabitants. In Part 1, users are challenged to learn enough about the characteristics of permafrost to understand the implications of these changes and to use analysis tools to investigate potential causes of the changes.

Ideally, each student or pair of students will work at their own computer for this lesson. Alternatively, with the use of a projector, some parts of the lesson can be conducted as whole class discussions.

Learning Contexts

Although this lesson focuses on identifying causes of thawing permafrost in Siberia, the implications of these changes in the Arctic region are far-reaching and impact Earth's geosphere, cryosphere, biosphere and atmosphere.

Science Standards

The following National Science Education Standards are supported by this chapter:
Grades 5-8
Science as Inquiry
  • 8ASI1.3 Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data.
    The use of tools and techniques, including mathematics, will be guided by the question asked and the investigations students design. The use of computers for the collection, summary, and display of evidence is part of this standard. Students should be able to access, gather, store, retrieve, and organize data, using hardware and software designed for these purposes.
  • 8ASI1.4 Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence.
    Students should base their explanation on what they observed, and as they develop cognitive skills, they should be able to differentiate explanation from description — providing causes for effects and establishing relationships based on evidence and logical argument. This standard requires a subject knowledge base so the students can effectively conduct investigations, because developing explanations establishes connections between the content of science and the contexts within which students develop new knowledge.
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
  • 8FSPSP3.2 Human activities also can induce hazards through resource acquisition, urban growth, land-use decisions, and waste disposal. Such activities can accelerate many natural changes.
Grades 9-12
Science as Inquiry
  • 12ASI1.3 Use technology and mathematics to improve investigations and communications.
    A variety of technologies, such as hand tools, measuring instruments, and calculators, should be an integral component of scientific investigations. The use of computers for the collection, analysis, and display of data is also a part of this standard. Mathematics plays an essential role in all aspects of an inquiry. For example, measurement is used for posing questions, formulas are used for developing explanations, and charts and graphs are used for communicating results.
  • 12ASI1.4 Formulate and revise scientific explanations and models using logic and evidence.
    Student inquiries should culminate in formulating an explanation or model. Models should be physical, conceptual, and mathematical. In the process of answering the questions, the students should engage in discussions and arguments that result in the revision of their explanations. These discussions should be based on scientific knowledge, the use of logic, and evidence from their investigation.
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
  • 12FSPSP5.2 Human activities can enhance potential for hazards. Acquisition of resources, urban growth, and waste disposal can accelerate rates of natural change.

Geography Standards

The following U.S. National Geography Standards are supported by this chapter:
Grades 9-12
Geography Standard 14: How human actions modify the physical environment.
Explain the global impacts of human changes in the physical environment, as exemplified by being able to:
Examine the characteristics of major global environmental changes and assess whether the changes are a result of human action, natural causes, or a combination of both factors (e.g., increases in world temperatures attributable to major global action, the link between changes in solar emissions and amounts of volcanic dust in the atmosphere attributable to natural causes).

Time Required

Depending on the skill level of the students, three to five class periods are needed to complete this chapter. In order to save time, instructors may decide to download the Google Earth and Excel files before class begins. Depending on network speed and reliability, instructors may also want to distribute the lesson files via thumbdrive or CD-ROM.

Case Study and Background: 1 class period
Part 2: Download and Install Google Earth, 1 class period
Part 3: Locate Chersky and explore permafrost locations, 1 class period
Part 4: Graph and analyze temperature trends, 1-2 class periods
Part 5: Compare Borehole trends with GISS temperature trends, 1 class period

Teaching Resources

Google Earth File (used in Parts 2,3, and 5)
Excel Files (used in Part 4)

Other Resources

Hands-on activities to compliment this lesson are available at NSIDC Educational Resources.