OGGM-Edu Glaciology Lab 2: Exploring glacier data

Lizz Ultee, Middlebury College
Fabien Maussion, University of Innsbruck

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This is a lab activity to involve students in exploring glacier data available online. The activity introduces two resources: the OGGM-Edu World Glacier Explorer apps, and the Fluctuations of Glaciers Browser from the World Glacier Monitoring Service. Students address three motivating questions:

  • Where are there glaciers on Earth today, and why?
  • What determines how large they are today—and therefore how much they can contribute to sea level rise?
  • And how do glaciologists keep track of all this? 

The goal is to pique students' curiosity for the field of glaciology, and to begin demonstrating how to find and interpret publicly available data.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



I use this activity in an undergraduate elective course on glaciology, similar to the mixed-level MSc/BSc glaciology courses taught at several universities. Students are mostly majors in geology, geography, Earth science, physics, or mathematics. A similar activity has also been used as an indoor preparation for field trip activities for high school students in Austria.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

  • Reading and comparing large numbers (order 100,000)
  • Creating graphs of simple functions

How the activity is situated in the course

We use this activity as the first or second lab session of the semester, typically after "OGGM-Edu Glaciology Lab 1: What Makes a Glacier?". Historically this has been in the first week of the semester, so we assume minimal background knowledge.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Global distribution of glaciers
  • Climate conditions that allow glaciers to exist
  • Contrast in number of glaciers versus sea level potential

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Deducing a multi-dimensional relationship (e.g. the effect of both temperature and precipitation on glacier mass balance/survival)
  • Interpreting graphical information

Other skills goals for this activity

Description and Teaching Materials

Each student or small group of students (2-3) should have a laptop or access to a computer station. We provide each student with a printed lab sheet (see below), which guides them through an independent exploration of world glacier data.

Part A (40-60 minutes): Students use the World Glacier Explorer app to quantify the global distribution of glaciers, and potential glacier contribution to global mean sea level, by region. They fill a table and compare the data across regions. We then discuss their findings as a class.

Part B (30 minutes): Students examine the climatological data presented in the World Glacier Explorer app to determine what factors determine the global glacier distribution they quantified in part A. They make a graph of the relationship between precipitation and temperature that is required for glacier survival, deduced from what they find in modern glacier observations on the app. We discuss their findings as a class.

Part C (15-20 minutes): Students use the Fluctuations of Glaciers Browser to access visual representations of thousands of single-glacier observations. They select a plot and describe it in some detail. We discuss their findings about various glaciers as a class. I then give a short debrief on the role of the World Glacier Monitoring Service, how data is maintained and shared, etc.

OGGM-Edu Glaciology Lab 2 sheet - Glacier Explorer - Student version (PDF) (Acrobat (PDF) 82kB Jun2 22)
OGGM-Edu Glaciology Lab 2 sheet - Glacier Explorer - Student version (RTF) (Rich Text File 336kB Jun2 22)


Teaching Notes and Tips

My class is small, about 12 students, and we simply went outside for full group discussion in between each part of the lab. In larger classes, you might use a pair/share method: after completing each part, ask students to share their responses to the questions with a partner, then invite volunteers to share with the whole class.

In part A, Question 5 asks students to compare the total glacier area in the US with the area of Vermont (where Middlebury College is located). We suggest adjusting the comparison to a more locally immediate geography for your institution, for example glacier area in Europe compared with area of Austria, or South America/Peru.

In part B, when students make a graph, some students might be confused whether they should graph a climatological relationship between precipitation and temperature (for example, the Clausius-Clapeyron relation) or the relationship observed in glaciated areas. The latter is the goal of the activity, but it can be useful to discuss the former in the context of marine glaciers.

In part C, the WGMS Fluctuations of Glaciers Browser can be overwhelming. There are several kinds of figures presented in the pop-up; the bar charts can be very hard to interpret. Temporal coverage also varies widely between glaciers. We suggest that students page through until they find a fairly complete line plot – example given in the instructor notes.

Following part C, when debriefing the role of the WGMS, I mention to the students that direct glacier observation is challenging for several reasons. In the context of my course, this is a teaser for later course content–focused on global numerical modelling and model uncertainties. If you won't return to these topics, it could be useful to give a few slides of explanation on how we get glacier data, historical spatial biases in sampling (glaciers in the Alps over-represented, remote glaciers poorly recorded), and modern practices around data collection and management.


Formative assessment: Discussion of key points and takeaways after each section of the procedure. For example, stop when most students have finished Part A and discuss the associated questions in class before allowing students to proceed to Part B.

Summative assessment: Collect the lab sheets at the end of the period. Evaluate whether students have (1) filled correct statistics in the table, (2) deduced a realistic relationship between annual average temperature and precipitation required to sustain a glacier, and (3) successfully found and interpreted a plot of WGMS data for a single glacier.

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