The Arctic is Melting – So What?

A view of sea ice in the Artic Ocean.

A view of sea ice in the Artic Ocean.

The activities are as follows:

Think of the North Pole as one big ice cube – a vast sheet of ice, only a few meters thick, floating over the Arctic Ocean. Historically, the amount of Arctic sea ice would be at a maximum in March. The cold temperatures over the long winter cause the ocean water to freeze and ice to accumulate. By September, the warm summer temperatures cause about 60% of the sea ice to melt every year. With global warming, more sea ice is melting than ever before. If more ice melts in the summer than is formed in the winter, the Arctic Ocean will become ice-free, and would change the Earth as we know it.

Student drills through lake ice

Student drills through lake ice

This loss of sea ice can have huge impacts on Arctic species and can also affect climate around the globe. For example, polar bears stand on the sea ice when they hunt. Without this platform they can’t catch their prey, leading to increased starvation. Beyond the Arctic, loss of sea ice can increase global climate change through the albedo effect (or the amount of incoming solar radiation that is reflected by a surface). Because ice is so white, it has high albedo and reflects a lot of the sunlight that hits it and keeps the earth cooler. Ice’s high albedo is why it seems so bright when the sun reflects off snow. When the ice melts and is replaced by water, which has a much lower albedo, more sunlight is absorbed by the earth’s surface and temperatures go up.

Scientists wanted to know whether the loss of sea ice and decreased albedo could affect extreme weather in the northern hemisphere. Extreme weather events are short-term atmospheric conditions that have been historically uncommon, like a very cold winter or a summer with a lot of rain. Extreme weather has important impacts on humans and nature. For example, for humans, extreme cold requires greater energy use to heat our homes and clear our roads, often increasing the use of fossil fuels. For wildlife, extreme cold could require changes in behavior, like finding more food, building better shelter, or a moving to a warmer location.

Student releases weather balloon

Student releases weather balloon

To make predictions about how the climate might change in the coming decades to centuries, scientists use climate models. Models are representations, often simplifications, of a structure or system used to make predictions. Climate models are incredibly complex. For example, climate models must describe, through mathematical equations, how water that evaporates in one region is transferred through the atmosphere to another region, potentially hundreds of miles away, and falls to the ground as precipitation.

James is a climate scientist who, along with his colleagues, wondered how the loss of arctic sea ice would affect climates around the globe. He used two well-established climate models – (1) the UK’s Hadley Centre model and (2) the US’s National Center for Atmospheric Research model. These models have been used previously by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to predict how much sea ice to expect in 2100.

Featured scientists: James Screen from University of Exeter, Clara Deser from National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Lantao Sun from University of Colorado at Boulder. Written by Erin Conlisk from Science Journal for Kids.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.2

Earth Science Journal for KidsThis Data Nugget was adapted from a primary literature activity developed by Science Journal For KidsFor a more detailed version of this lesson plan, including a supplemental reading, videos, and extension activities, visit their website and register for free!

There is one scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below.

You can play this video, showing changes in Arctic sea ice from 1987-2014, overhead at the start of class (no sound required). Each student should write down a couple of observations and questions.

Green crabs: invaders in the Great Marsh

Scientist Alyssa holding a non-native green crab, introduced from Europe to the American Atlantic Coast. This crab causes many problems in its new range, including the loss of native eelgrass.

Scientist Alyssa holding a non-native green crab, introduced from Europe to the American Atlantic Coast. This crab causes many problems in its new range, including the loss of native eelgrass.

The activities are as follows:

Marshes, areas along the coast that flood with each tide, are incredibly important habitats. They act as homes to large number of species, protect the coast from erosion during storms, and act as a filter for nutrients and pollution. Many species are unique to these habitats and provide crucial support to the marsh. For example, native eelgrass, a type of plant, minimizes erosion by holding sediments in place with their roots.

In an effort to help protect and restore marshes, we must understand current-day issues that are affecting their health. The introduction of non-native species, species that are not originally from this ecosystem, into a marsh may disrupt the marsh ecosystem and threaten the survival of native species. One species that has recently caused a lot of trouble is the European green crab. This crab species was accidentally carried to the Atlantic coast back in the early 1800s from Europe. Since then, they have become extremely invasive and their numbers have exploded! Compared to native crabs, the green crab digs a lot when it searches for food and shelter. This digging uproots eelgrass and causes its population numbers to fall. In many spots where green crabs have been introduced, marshes are now bare and no more grass can grow.

Non-native green crabs caught in trap that has been underwater for 25 hours

Non-native green crabs caught in trap that has been underwater for 25 hours

The Great Marsh is one of the coastal habitats affected by invasive green crabs. Located on the North Shore of Massachusetts, the Great Marsh is known for being the longest continuous stretch of salt marsh in all of New England. Alyssa is a restoration ecologist who is very concerned with the conservation of the Great Marsh and other important coastal ecosystems. She and other scientists are trying to maintain native species while also reducing the effects of non-native species.

A major goal for Alyssa is to restore populations of a native eelgrass. Eelgrass does more than just prevent erosion. It also improves water quality, provides food and habitat for native animal species, and acts as an indicator of marsh health. If green crabs are responsible for the loss of eelgrass from the marsh, then restorations where eelgrass is planted back into the marsh should be more successful where green crab numbers are low. Alyssa has been measuring green crab populations in different areas by laying out green crab traps for 24 hours. Alyssa has set these traps around Essex Bay, an area within the Great Marsh. She recorded the total number of green crabs caught at each location (as well as their body size and sex).

Native eelgrass growing in Essex Bay, an area within the Great Marsh

Native eelgrass growing in Essex Bay, an area within the Great Marsh

Featured scientist: Alyssa Novak, Center for Coastal Studies/Boston University. Written by: Hanna Morgensen

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.8

Urbanization and Estuary Eutrophication

Charles Hopkinson out taking dissolved O2 measurements.

Charles Hopkinson out taking dissolved O2 measurements.Student activity, Graph Type A, Level 4

The activities are as follows:

An estuary is a habitat formed where a freshwater river or stream meets a saltwater ocean. Many estuaries can be found along the Atlantic coast of North America. Reeds and grasses are the dominant type of plant in estuaries because they are able to tolerate and grow in the salty water. Where these reeds and grasses grow they form a special habitat called a salt marsh. Salt marshes are important because they filter polluted water and buffer the land from storms. Salt marshes are the habitat for many different kinds of plants, fish, shellfish, and birds.

Hap Garritt removing an oxygen logger from Middle Road Bridge in winter.

Hap Garritt removing an oxygen logger from Middle Road Bridge in winter.

Scientists are worried because some salt marshes are in trouble! Runoff from rain washes nutrients, usually from lawn fertilizers and agriculture, from land and carries them to estuaries. When excess nutrients, such as nitrogen or phosphorus, enter an ecosystem the natural balance is disrupted. The ecosystem becomes more productive, called eutrophication. Eutrophication can cause major problems for estuaries and other habitats.

With more nutrients in the ecosystem, the growth of plants and algae explodes. During the day, algae photosynthesize and release O2 as a byproduct. However, excess nutrients cause these same algae grow densely near the surface of the water, decreasing the light available to plants growing below the water on the soil surface. Without light, the plants die and are broken down by decomposers. Decomposers, such as bacteria, use a lot of O2 because they respire as they break down plant material. Because there is so much dead plant material for decomposers, they use up most of the O2 dissolved in the water. Eventually there is not enough O2 for aquatic animals, such as fish and shellfish, and they begin to die-off as well.

Two features can be used to identify whether eutrophication is occurring. The first feature is low levels of dissolved O2 in the water. The second feature is when there are large changes in the amount of dissolved O2 from dawn to dusk. Remember, during the day when it’s sunny, photosynthesis converts CO2, water, and light into glucose and O2. Decomposition reverses the process, using glucose and O2 and producing CO2 and water. This means that when the sun is down at night, O2 is not being added to the water from photosynthesis. However, O2 is still being used for decomposition and respiration by animals and plants at night.

The scientists focused on two locations in the Plum Island Estuary and measured dissolved O2 levels, or the amount of O2 in the water. They looked at how the levels of O2 changed throughout the day and night. They predicted that the upper part of the estuary would show the two features of eutrophication because it is located near an urban area. They also predicted the lower part of the estuary would not be affected by eutrophication because it was farther from urban areas.

A view of the Plum Island estuary

A view of the Plum Island estuary

Featured scientists: Charles Hopkinson from University of Georgia and Hap Garritt from the Marine Biological Laboratory Ecosystems Center

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.6

The mystery of Plum Island Marsh

Scientist, Harriet Booth, counting and collecting mudsnails from a mudflat at low tide.

Scientist, Harriet Booth, counting and collecting mudsnails from a mudflat at low tide.

The activities are as follows:

Salt marshes are among the most productive coastal ecosystems. They support a diversity of plants and animals. Algae and marsh plants feed many invertebrates, like snails and crabs, which are then eaten by fish and birds. This flow of energy through the food web is important for the functioning of the marsh. Today, we are adding large amounts of fertilizers to our lawns and agricultural areas. When it rains these nutrients runoff into marshes. Marsh plants and algae can then use theses extra nutrients to grow and reproduce faster. Changes in any links in the food chain can have cascading effects throughout the ecosystem.

To understand how these nutrients will affect the marsh food web, scientists working at Plum Island Marsh experimentally fertilized several salt marsh creeks for many years. In 2009, they noticed that fish populations were declining in the fertilized creeks. Because fertilizer does not have any direct effect on fish, they wondered what could fertilizer be changing in the system that would affect fish? That same year they also noticed the mudflats in the fertilized creeks were covered in mudsnails, far more so than in previous years. These mudsnails eat the same algae that fish eat, and they compete for space on the mudflats with the small invertebrates that the fish also eat. The scientists thought that the large populations of mudsnails were causing the mysterious disappearance of fish in fertilized creeks by decreasing the number of algae and invertebrates in fertilized creeks.

View of a Plum Island salt marsh.

View of a Plum Island salt marsh.

A few years later, Harriet began working as one of the scientists at Plum Island Marsh. She was worried mudsnails were getting a bad reputation. There was no evidence to show they were causing the decline in fish populations. She decided to collect some data. If mudsnails were competing with the invertebrates that fish eat, she expected to find high densities of mudsnails and low densities of invertebrates in the fertilized creeks. In the summer of 2012, Harriet counted and collected mudsnails using a quadrat (shown in the photo), and took cores down into the mud to measure the other invertebrates in the mudflats of the creeks. She randomly sampled 20 locations along a 200-meter stretch of creek at low tide. The data she collected is found below and can help determine whether mudsnails are responsible for the disappearance of fish in fertilized creeks.

Mudsnails on a mudflat, and the quadrat used to study their population size.

Mudsnails on a mudflat, and the quadrat used to study their population size.

Featured scientist: Harriet Booth from Northeastern University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.9

Click here for a great blog post by Harriet detailing her time spent in the salt marsh: Harriet Booth: Unraveling the mysteries of Plum Island’s marshes

SaveSave

Dangerous Aquatic Prey: Can Predators Adapt to Toxic Algae?

Figure 1: Scientist Finiguerra collecting copepods at the New Jersey experimental site.

Figure 1: Scientist Finiguerra collecting copepods at the New Jersey experimental site.

The activities are as follows:

Phytoplankton are microscopic algae that form the base of all aquatic food chains. While organisms can safely eat most phytoplankton, some produce toxins. When these toxic algae reach high population levels it is known as a toxic algal bloom. These blooms are occurring more and more often across the globe – a worrisome trend! Toxic algae poison animals that eat them, and in turn, humans that eat these animals. For example, clams and other shellfish filter out large quantities of the toxic algae, and the toxic cells accumulate in their tissues. If humans then eat these contaminated shellfish they can become very sick, and even die.

One reason the algae produce toxins is to reduce predation. However, if predators feed on toxic prey for many generations, the predator population may evolve resistance, by natural selection, to the toxic prey. In other words, the predators may adapt and would be able to eat lots of toxic prey without being poisoned. Copepods, small crustaceans and the most abundant animals in the world, are main consumers of toxic algae. Along the northeast coast of the US, there is a toxic phytoplankton species, Alexandrium fundyense, which produces very toxic blooms. Blooms of Alexandrium occur often in Maine, but are never found in New Jersey. Scientists wondered if populations of copepods that live Maine were better at coping with this toxic prey compared to copepods from New Jersey.

Figure 2: A photograph of a copepod (left) and the toxic alga Alexandrium sp. (right).

Figure 2: A photograph of a copepod (left) and the toxic alga Alexandrium sp. (right).

Scientists tested whether copepod populations that have a long history of exposure to toxic Alexandrium are adapted to this toxic prey. To do this, they raised copepods from Maine (long history of exposure to toxic Alexandrium) and New Jersey (no exposure to toxic Alexandrium) in the laboratory. They raised all the copepods under the same conditions. The copepods reproduced and several generations were born in the lab (a copepod generation is only about a month). This experimental design eliminated differences in environmental influences (temperature, salinity, etc.) from where the populations were originally from.

The scientists then measured how fast the copepods were able to produce eggs, also called their egg production rate. Egg production rate is an estimate of growth and indicates how well the copepods can perform in their environment. The copepods were given either a diet of toxic Alexandrium or another diet that was non-toxic. If the copepods from Maine produced more eggs while eating Alexandrium, this would be evidence that copepods have adapted to eating the toxic algae. The non-toxic diet was a control to make sure the copepods from Maine and New Jersey produced similar amounts of eggs while eating a good food source. For example, if the copepods from New Jersey always lay fewer eggs, regardless of good or bad food, then the control would show that. Without the control, it would be impossible to tell if a difference in egg production between copepod populations was due to the toxic food or something else.

Featured scientists: Michael Finiguerra and Hans Dam from University of Connecticut-Avery Point, and David Avery from the Maine Maritime Academy

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.6

There are three scientific papers associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citations and PDFs of the papers are below. 

Colin, SP and HG Dam (2002) Latitudinal differentiation in the effects of the toxic dinoflagellate Alexandrium spp. on the feeding and reproduction of populations of the copepod Acartia hudsonicaHarmful Algae 1:113-125

Colin, SP and HG Dam (2004) Testing for resistance of pelagic marine copepods to a toxic dinoflagellate. Evolutionary Ecology 18:355-377

Colin, SP and HG Dam (2007) Comparison of the functional and numerical responses of resistant versus non-resistant populations of the copepod Acartia hudsonica fed the toxic dinoflagellate Alexandrium tamarense. Harmful Algae 6:875-882

Won’t you be my urchin?

The vegetarian sea urchin Diadema antillarum.

The vegetarian sea urchin Diadema antillarum.

The activities are as follows:

Imagine you are snorkeling on a coral reef! You see a lot of plants and animals living together. Some animals, such as sharks, are predators and eat other animals. Other animals, like anemones and the fish that live in them, are mutualists and protect each other from predators. There are also herbivores, such as urchins, on the reef that eat plants and algae. All of these species, and many more, need the coral reef to survive.

Experimental setup with tiles in bins. Some bins have sea urchins and some do not.

Experimental setup with tiles in bins. Some bins have sea urchins and some do not.

Corals are animals that build coral reefs. When you look at a coral you may see what looks like one large rock. In fact, corals are made up of thousands of tiny animals, called polyps. Coral polyps are white but look brown and green because microscopic plants, called zooxanthellae, live inside them. Corals provide the plants a safe home, and in return the plants make food for corals. Sadly, today corals around the world are dying. Scientists want to figure out ways to help corals since they are such important animals.

Corals are picky and only like to live in certain places. Corals compete with other types of algae, like seaweed, for space to grow. Sarah is a marine biologist who is interested in corals because they are such important animals on the reef. She wanted to understand how to help corals. She thought that when herbivores are present and are eating algae on the reef corals have less competition for space to grow.

Sarah set up an experiment where she put tiles in bins out on the reef. Tiles provided space for animals to grow, including corals. Sarah also put sea urchins in half of the bins. Sea urchins are important herbivores and one of the species that like to eat algae. The other half of the bins had no urchins so the algae would be free to grow there. She had 4 bins with urchins and 4 bins with no urchins. After a few months, Sarah counted how many corals were growing on tiles. She counted corals found in the bins with and without sea urchins. Because sea urchins eat algae, they should free up space for coral to grow. Sarah expected that more corals would grow on the tiles in sea urchin bins compared to the bins with no sea urchins.

B. Photograph of Agaricia juvenile on experimental substratum. C. Photograph of Porites juvenile on experimental substratum

B. Photograph of coral species Agaricia juvenile on experimental tile. C. Photograph of coral species Porites juvenile on experimental tile.

Featured scientist: Sarah W. Davies from University of Texas at Austin

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 6.1

The lab webpage can be found here. There is one scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below.

Davies SW, MV Matz, PD Vize (2013) Ecological Complexity of Coral Recruitment Processes: Effects of Invertebrate Herbivores on Coral Recruitment and Growth Depends Upon Substratum Properties and Coral Species. PLOS ONE 8(9):e72830

After students have completed the Data Nugget, you can have them discuss the management implications of this research. Watch the news story below and have students consider how urchins can be used as a management tool to help restore coral reefs!

SaveSave

Coral bleaching and climate change

A Pacific coral reef with many corals

A Pacific coral reef with many corals

The activities are as follows:

Corals are animals that build coral reefs. Coral reefs are home to many species of animals – fish, sharks, sea turtles, and anemones all use corals for habitat! Corals are white, but they look brown and green because certain types of small plants, called algae, live inside them. The algae produce food for the corals so they can grow big, and the corals provide the algae a safe home. The algae and corals form a mutualism, or a relationship between two species where both partners benefit each other and do better together than they would alone.

When the water gets too warm, algae can no longer live inside corals. The corals turn from green to white, called coral bleaching, because they do not have algae living in them. Climate change has been causing the Earth’s air and oceans to get warmer. With warmer oceans, coral bleaching is happening more often. If the water stays too warm, bleached corals will die without their algae mutualists.

Scientist Carly working on a coral reef

Scientist Carly working on a coral reef

Carly is a scientist who wanted to study coral bleaching so she could help protect corals and coral reefs. One day, Carly observed an interesting pattern. Corals on one part of a reef were bleaching while corals on another part of the reef stayed healthy. She wondered, why? Why can some corals and their algae still work together when the water is warm while others cannot?

Ocean water that is closer to the shore (inshore) gets warmer than water further away (offshore). Perhaps corals and algae from inshore reefs are used to warm water. She wondered whether inshore corals were better able to work with their algae in warm water because they are used to these temperatures. If so, inshore corals and algae may bleach less often than offshore corals and algae. Carly designed an experiment to test this. She collected 15 corals from inshore and 15 from offshore reefs in the Florida Keys. She brought them into an aquarium lab for research. She cut each coral in half and put half of each coral into tanks with normal water and the other half into tanks with heaters. The normal water temperature was 27°C and is a temperature that both inshore and offshore corals experience during the year. The warm water tanks were 31°C and are a temperature that inshore corals experience, but offshore corals never experienced in the past but may experience with climate change in the future. After six weeks she recorded the number of corals that bleached in each tank.

 Featured scientist: Carly Kenkel from The University of Texas at Austin

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 7.9

There are two scientific papers associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citations and PDFs of the papers are below. The lab webpage can be found here.

If your students are looking for more data on coral bleaching, check out HHMI BioInteractive’s classroom activity in which students use authentic data to assess the threat of coral bleaching around the world. Also, check out the two videos below!

  • Another BioInteractive video, appropriate for upper level high school classrooms. Visualizes the process of coral bleaching at different scales. Video includes lots of complex vocabulary about cells and the process of photosynthesis.

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

Finding a Foothold

The activities are as follows:

Have you ever noticed that the ground at a beach has rocks of many different sizes? These rocks, sand, and dirt are all called substrates. The types of substrate we see are described by the size of the particles that cover the ground. These can range from large boulders down to fine grains of sand and dirt, with many sizes in between. No matter what type of substrate you see at the beach, you can find organisms that will live in or on it. Just like there are different types of substrates, there are different types of organisms that can live there. How can we determine which types of organisms prefer which types of substrates? That is the job of field researchers!

mollusk-3

Students collecting mollusk data on different beach substrates.

Students and teachers at Kentridge High School have made many field trips to the beach and have seen lots of organisms. Normally, they just noticed what they could see easily in front of them. Students became interested to know how the type of substrate influences which organisms will live there. They noticed that the snails in the aquarium at school like to stick to the glass walls of the tank. Do snails and other shelled mollusks found near the ocean, like chitons, periwinkles, whelks and limpets, also like to live on large, stable substrates? The students went to beach to find out!

Mollusks have a “foot” which may be able to attach more securely to larger substrates, such as boulders, and allow them more room to move. So, the students expected to find more mollusks on boulders than on other types of substrates. To gather the data needed to answer this question, the students went to a local beach. They looked at sections of the beach with substrates of all types. On these different substrates, they kept track of all the different types of organisms that were present. They measured the frequency that they observed four types of mollusks (chitons, limpets, whelks, and periwinkles) on the following substrates: boulder, gravel, pebble, logs, sand, and shell debris. Frequency was measured as the proportion of times that a particular organism was present on a substrate type, out of the total number of observations. For example, if they observed 2 boulders and saw limpets on 1, the frequency would = ½ or 0.5.

Featured scientists: Darrel Nash and Sarah Hall from Kentridge High School, Washington

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 7.4

For more information on the Seattle Aquarium’s citizen science project, and to download the dataset from this project, click here