Melting Mountains: Climate Change and Glaciers

Apr. 15, 2011 | 1 Comment | Science | 5-8 | Climate

Lesson Steps

Warm Up:  Thinking about CO2

  1. Start the lesson by dividing a chalkboard, whiteboard, flipchart, etc. into two columns.
  2. Label one side of the column with ‘what do we know about CO2?’ and ask students to tell you what they already know about the molecule (for example, it stands for Carbon Dioxide, we exhale CO2, trees and plants convert CO2 to Oxygen, it is a greenhouse gas, etc.)
  3. When students are done, label the other side of the chart ‘what do we NOT know about CO2?’ and have them ask questions they have about CO2 (for example, is CO2 good or bad? Where does CO2 come from? What is a greenhouse gas and why is it called that? Etc.)
  4. Tell students to keep the chart in mind as they work through the lesson


Activity One:  What makes the Earth sweat? 

  1. Talk with students about the Greenhouse Effect and how it works.  Explain that it is Earth’s natural process of keeping warm, and that CO2 in the atmosphere helps to form a blanket around the earth so that all living things can survive.  This effect allows for life to exist on Earth; otherwise, Earth would have no protection from the coldness of outer space.  This is similar to how the glass of a greenhouse allows sunlight to enter but helps hold it in, keeping the inside air warmer than the outside air.  Put Reproducible #1- Earth as a Greenhouse on the overhead and discuss with students.
  2. Break students into small groups of about 4-6.  Have one student from each group volunteer to be “Earth.”  Let them know that they will have to be dressed up in layers of clothing, so choose a student who is comfortable with this.  Ensure that each group has a scarf, hat, jacket, sweatpants, gloves, and a blanket. (Note- this could be done as a whole class with only one student being the “earth”).
  3. Using Reproducible #2- CO2 Emission Cards, have a student pick a card out of the deck and read what it says.  Have groups follow the directions as listed on the card for which layer of clothing to add to “Earth.”
  4. Continue with the next card until all cards have been chosen and the “Earth” is covered in layers.
  5. Discuss with students how adding layers to their classmate was a representation of adding CO2 to Earth’s atmosphere.  Explain that the greenhouse effect is natural on Earth and needed to support life, just as we need a couple of layers of clothing to stay warm, but too much warmth can be a bad thing.  Mention that the Earth’s temperature has historically fluctuated, but it is the rate at which its temperature is currently warming that is an issue.  Have students think about what happens when they have too many layers on (they sweat).  The same process happens with the Earth, but the Earth sweats by melting glaciers!


Activity Two:  Thinking about Glaciers 

1. Introduce the concept of glaciers to students to prepare them for the next day’s lesson.  Ask questions such as: 

a) What do you already know about glaciers? 

b) Have you ever seen or been to a glacier?

c) What types of animals and vegetation use glaciers as a habitat? 

d) Where are glaciers located? 

e) How do glaciers help to form landscapes?


Activity Three:  Melting Mountains in Glacier National Park

On day two, introduce students to Glacier National Park.  (Located in Montana, shares a border with Canada, part of US Parks System, designated in 1910 as the 10th national park, preserved federal land because of its beauty and importance as a resource and ecosystem).  Point out Montana on a map and discuss how near or far it is to your school.  Have you or any of your students been to Glacier National Park?  Have them share their impressions and experiences.

Access the slideshow “Glaciers Before and After” to view glaciers melting at Glacier National Park:

As you are going through the slide show with students, talk with them about how much the glaciers have shrunk and why that is a problem (Glaciers are a top fresh water resource, and they melt each spring to replenish our water supply.  However, with rising temperatures they are melting faster and earlier, making it harder to contain all that water in our dams; therefore a lot of it flows into the ocean.  This interferes with sea levels and ocean currents.  Glaciers also provide habitats for animals, help to regulate Earth’s temperature, are important to the water cycle etc.) 

Ask students how they think the ocean is affected by the extra water flowing into it from glaciers?  What types of problems does this cause?  (Water from glaciers increases sea levels in the ocean and many coastal areas are already under water.  Sea levels will continue to rise and destroy coastal areas as more water flows into the ocean).


Activity Three:  ReadingAbout Climate Change

  1. Either as a class or individually, have students read Reproducible #3- “Melting Away”
  2. When finished, have students break into groups and discuss the reflection questions on Reproducible #4- “Melting Away” Reflection Questions.
  3. Bring the class all together and have them share what they discussed in their groups. 


Wrap Up:  Connecting CO2 Production and Water Resources

  1. Ask students the following questions to ensure understanding of the main concepts:
    1. What does CO2 do for the Earth?  Is this a natural process?  How do humans contribute to this process, and what are the repercussions?
    2. How are glaciers affected by adding CO2 into the atmosphere?  Why is this important?  
  2. Have them look at the side of the flip chart where they asked questions about CO2 - have those questions been answered?


Extension:  Measuring Your Carbon Footprint

Have students visit the interactive measuring tool at to determine how much CO2 they produce and what they can do to reduce their impact.  Ask them to come up with some goals for how they are going to reduce their emissions, and have them write out a plan for how they are going to accomplish those goals. 



At the end of this lesson, students should be able to explain the “greenhouse effect” and what role CO2 plays in the process.  They should also be able to explain where CO2 comes from, how humans are affecting the process, and how warmer temperatures are having an effect on glaciers.