Calculating sea level changes

This page authored by Shimon Wdowinski, University of Miami.
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In this lab activity, students learn about the relationships between sea level and glaciers during glacial and interglacial periods. First the students need to calculate the maximum sea level rise assuming all water stored in glaciers and ice caps will melt. Then, they are asked to calculate the ice sheet distribution during the last glacial maxima based on the information that sea level dropped by 125 m.

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Learning Goals

  • Concepts: Sea level (past, present and future) is strongly related to amount of water stored in ice caps and glaciers.
  • Higher order thinking: Ice caps distribution depends on the geographic distribution of the continents.
  • The activity address two end member conditions, sea level drop by 125 m and sea level rise due to complete melt of the ice caps and glaciers. There is no scenario of current condition with limited ice melt.

Context for Use

This lab is based on basic math, but of large numbers, and common sense. It is was developed for a non-science major students. There is no class limitation or a need for special equipment. The lab duration is 50-75 minutes.

Description and Teaching Materials

Student handout for calculating SLR (Acrobat (PDF) 963kB Apr11 14)
Solution for the SLR calculation change (Acrobat (PDF) 953kB Apr11 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity was given to non-science majors, who tend to freak out when seeing large numbers. It will be useful remind student how to use power of 10th before let them start work on the activity.


References and Resources