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.

What Do Trees Know About Rain?

A cypress pine, or Callitris columellaris. This species is able to survive in Australia’s dry climates.

A cypress pine, or Callitris columellaris. This species is able to survive in Australia’s dry climates.

The activities are as follows:

Did you know that Australia is the driest inhabited continent in the world? Because it is so dry, we need to be able to predict how often and how much rain will fall. Predictions about future droughts help farmers care for their crops, cities plan their water use, and scientists better understand how ecosystems will change. The typical climate of arid northwest Australia consists of long drought periods with a few very wet years sprinkled in. Scientists predict that climate change will cause these cycles to become more extreme – droughts will become longer and periods of rain will become wetter. When variability is the norm, how can scientists tell if the climate is changing and droughts and rain events today are more intense than what we’ve seen in the past?

To make rainfall predictions for the future, scientists need data on past rainfall. However, humans have only recorded rainfall in Australia for the past 100 years. Because climate changes slowly and goes through long-term cycles, scientists need very long term datasets of rainfall.

Scientist Alison coring a cypress pine

Scientist Alison coring a cypress pine

The answer to this challenge comes from trees! Using dendrochronology, the study of tree rings, scientists get a window back in time. Many tree species add a ring to their trunks every year. The width of this ring varies from year to year depending on how much water is available. If it rains a lot in a year, the tree grows relatively fast and ends up with a wide tree ring. If there isn’t much rain in a year, the tree doesn’t grow much and the ring is narrow. We can compare the width of rings from recent years to the known rain data humans have collected. Then, assuming the same forces that determine tree ring width are operating today as in the past, we can go back and interpret how much rain fell in years where we have no recorded rainfall data. This indirect information from tree rings is known as a proxy, and helps us infer data about past climates.

For this study, the scientists used cypress-pine, or Callitris columellaris. This species is able to survive in Australia’s dry climates and is long lived enough to provide data far back in time. Fortunately, scientists don’t have to cut down the trees to see their rings. Instead, they use a corer – a hollow metal drill with the diameter of a straw. They drill it through the tree all the way to its core, and extract a sample of the tissue that shows all the tree rings. The scientists took 40 cores from 27 different cypress-pine trees. The oldest trees in the sample were more than 200 years old. Next, they developed a chronology where they lined up ring widths from one tree with all the other trees, wide with wide and narrow with narrow. This chronology gives them many replicate samples, and data going back all the way to the 19th century! Next, they used a dataset of rainfall from rain gauges that have been set out in Australia since 1910. They then take this precipitation data and overlay it with the tree ring widths since 1910. For tree rings before 1910, they then project back in time using a rainfall formula.

These videos, demonstrating the science of dendrochronology, could be a great way to spark class discussions:

Featured scientist: Alison O’Donnell from University of Western Australia

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.0

Earth Science Journal for KidsThis Data Nugget was adapted from a primary literature activity developed by Science Journal For Kids. For 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.

Growth rings from a Callitirs tree.

Growth rings from a Callitirs tree.