Disappearing Glaciers: A Lesson in Climate Change for Middle and High School

Photo: The Hubbard Glacier in Alaska.

In June 2019, I was on a ship in Alaska gazing out in awe at the Hubbard Glacier and narrating to the passengers about its history and size: six miles across and 300 feet tall at its face. I explained how, unlike other glaciers, the Hubbard continues to move forward in times of warming climate because of increased moisture leading to increased snowfall over its collection area. 

I was staring at something that was around at the time the first colonies were settled in America. During that period, Isaac Newton was contemplating gravity, and Galileo was confirming that the sun is at the center of our solar system (not the Earth). It was an amazing experience, and I could have sat and stared at that glacier for weeks on end.

The Hubbard glacier.

That sense of awe and wonder remains with me and, as I read this morning about the eulogy being written for the first of Iceland’s glaciers to succumb to climate change, it added to the sadness I feel about our current state. The Okjökull, or Ok, glacier will be memorialized with a plaque that includes the current ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (415) and a statement noting that Iceland’s glaciers will be gone within the next 200 years if we are unsuccessful at combating climate change.

Teaching Climate Change in the Classroom

We are beyond the tipping point now and already dealing with the effects of climate change, but we still have the ability to impact how severe those effects will be. Our role as educators is ever important in our potential success, so let’s roll up our sleeves and help each other with some ideas about teaching climate change in the classroom. Here are some ideas:

  • Scientists wrote a eulogy for the Ok glacier. Have your students do the same for another glacier based on their research.
  • The data on COemissions is stunning to say the least—and a great place to start having a conversation on patterns, one of the Crosscutting Concepts of the Next Generation Science Standards. Don’t limit yourself to the last 200 years; work with students to look at the last 200,000 years of data instead to show the true change.
  • Once you have established the cause of climate change—increased CO2 emissions—hone in on the solutions. Have your students work together to come up with solutions! Consider having them research, develop, and seek to implement steps that can be taken within your school and community to help combat climate change. You can model a decreased environmental footprint for your students with:

The Hubbard Glacier in Alaska continues to advance even in warming climates, but it is shrinking from the top down. As I visited with another naturalist on the ship who lives in Alaska and has viewed the Hubbard over the past 10 years, he recounted how shocking it is to see the glacier changing each year. We both impressed upon passengers the importance of advocating for the protection of the environment that sustains these wonders. It is my hope that, as educators, we will be able to influence the next generation of environmentally responsible citizens.

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Learn more about HMH Science Dimensions, enabling teachers to guide K–12 students in learning through exploration, analysis, application, and explanation.

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