Global Climate: Estimating How Much Sea Level Changes When Continental Ice Sheets Form

Paul Butler
The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA 98505
Created: 2006-07-28 16:52:12 Last Modified: February 13, 2008 11:30
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


In this Spreadsheets across the Curriculum activity, students estimate the drop in sea-level during glacial maxima. They begin by estimating the surface area of the world's oceans, and then use ice volume data to approximate how much sea-level dropped. Students then see how to address one of the key assumptions of the model (area of continental shelf). With this backround, students re-evaluate the key assumption and determine the sea-level rise that would occur if the remaining ice melted.

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Learning Goals

Students will:
  • Create and work with spreadsheets in Excel.
  • Gain experience using estimations to solve a problem .
  • Gain experience using and considering significant figures.
  • Gain experience using the basic geometric formula for surface area.
  • Gain experience manipulating algebraic equations.
In the process, the students will:
  • Use estimates and simplifying assumptions to approximate the drop in sea level during the glacial maxima.
  • Evaulate the validity of the simplifying assumptions they have used.

Context for Use

This module was designed for beginning undergraduates in the earth sciences or environmental studies. It can be completed in 2-3 hours.

Description and Teaching Materials

PowerPoint SSAC2006.QE697.PB1.2-student version (PowerPoint 242kB May2 07)

The module is a PowerPoint presentation with embedded spreadsheets.

If the embedded spreadsheets are not visible, save the PowerPoint file to disk and open it from there.

This PowerPoint file is the student version of the module. An instructor version is available by request. The instructor version includes the completed spreadsheet. Send your request to Len Vacher ( by filling out and submitting the Instructor Module Request Form.

Teaching Notes and Tips

I have used this module in two environmental studies labs, and students appeared interested in the topic. Students were able to complete the "end-of-module" questions with minimal introductory explanation and some assistance while they were working.


The student version of the module includes an end-of-module assignment that can be used for assessment. The instructor version also includes a pretest that can be coupled with the end-of-module assignment.

References and Resources

This introductory module can be used in conjunction with other earth science modules in the SSAC collection.