Climate Change and the Arctic

This page was submitted by Julie Bartley, Gustavus Adolphus College, and the mini-module was co-developed by Julie Bartley and Jeff Jeremiason, Gustavus Adolphus College.
Gustavus Adolphus College, Geology
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Students will learn about the physical changes occurring in the Arctic and the local and global impacts of these changes. The scientific basis for climate change is presented in the module followed by specific physical changes which are occurring in the Arctic. Examples of how those changes are impacting the people and ecology of the Arctic are emphasized with impacts on reindeer and impacts on indigenous reindeer-herding people highlighted.

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Learning Goals

1) Students can describe and explain the changes occurring in the arctic and the local and global impacts of these changes
2) Students can discuss the impacts of these changes on people and ecology of the arctic region, with particular attention to the impacts on reindeer and the indigenous peoples of the arctic.

Context for Use

This powerpoint module includes videos and is designed for an 80-minute class period including time for discussion. Pieces of the module could be used for a shorter class period. The module was tested in an upper level Scandinavian Studies course entitled Nordic Colonialism which consisted of 11 students and emphasized class discussions. The students had a variety of backgrounds and were primarily 3rd and 4th year students majoring in the humanities and social sciences. The class was led by a specialist faculty member (Geology) with the host faculty member (Scandinavian Studies) present. Graphs and videos are used to teach the relatively introductory scientific concepts are the module could be taught by the host faculty in the future.

The module was developed for students with little or no background in climate science who were studying Nordic colonialism and contemporary culture. Effects on the Arctic are presented and students are asked to consider climate feedbacks. More advanced topics such as impacts on the jet stream and release of methane from sea beds could be added for students with more scientific background.

Description and Teaching Materials

Before class: Prior to class, students watched two videos (Kunuk and Mauro (2010) and Vik (2013)) related to indigenous perspectives on modern science and climate change in Arctic regions. Students also were asked to read some background information on climate effects in the Arctic (Struzik (2014)) and some general readings on environmental issues in the Arctic (The Arctic is Changing (2014), Mustonen and Ford (2014)). The students were asked to consider the terms 1) "ecological imperialism"; 2) "environmentalism"; 3) "green post-colonialism" and to write short definitions that connected these terms to the readings, and bring them to class for discussion.
During Class :

  • Begin the module with a student-driven discussion of how climate change is affecting and will affect people who live in the Arctic as well as the ecology of the Arctic
  • Move into the temperature data and mechanism for the greenhouse effect
  • Have students discuss some reasons why the Arctic temperature changes are different than the rest of the globe. Is this consistent with the mechanism for the greenhouse effect? Why hasn't the Antarctic warmed as much?
  • Questions like these will lead into the discussion of feedback mechanisms and an explanation of why positive feedback mechanisms dominate in general when temperatures warm and why these positive feedbacks are strong in the Arctic
  • A discussion regarding 'who cares about the Arctic' will lead to presenting how what happens in the Arctic impacts the rest of the globe. Examples of impacts of sea level rise are presented.
  • A discussion on economic interests in an ice-free Arctic could be inserted here. Shipping routes would be shortened and further oil exploration could occur in an ice-free Arctic.
  • The module ends with examples of climate change impacts on Arctic ecology (orcas, beluga whales, and reindeer) and on people leaving in the Arctic (Sami).

Slides for Climate Change in the Arctic Mini-Module (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 11MB Jan24 17)
Bibliography - Climate Change & the Arctic (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 13kB Jan24 17)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The subject of climate change and its impact on the Arctic can lead to a broad range of discussions. Since this particular module was used in a Scandinavian Studies focused on historical and contemporary culture, much of the discussion was focused on how indigenous cultures are impacted and responding to rapid physical changes in the Arctic. For example, the cultural acceptance of modern science by indigenous people was a topic that was of interest to this group of students.
The module could easily be modified to focus on the physical science of changes in the Arctic. Considering how changes in the Arctic lead to a cascade of effects around the globe is an excellent way for students to practice system science, for example. Each of the feedbacks discussed could be explored in more detail if desired as well.
In addition, an instructor could choose certain aspects of the physical science to include and then find other examples of ecological, cultural, political, etc. impacts of changes in the Arctic.


In this particular class students were not evaluated on the physical science aspects of climate change. Students could be asked to reflect on how cultural differences impact views on climate change and modern science in a discussion or essay question.

References and Resources