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.

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

Marvelous Mud

mud

You can tell that the mud in this picture is high in organic matter because it is dark brown and mucky (in real life you’d be able to smell it, too!)

The activities are as follows:

The goopy, mucky, (sometimes stinky!) mud at the bottom of a wetland or lake is a very important part of the ecosystem. Mud is basically wet soil, but because it has different properties than soil because it is wet most of the time. Mud is usually dark brown because it contains partially decomposed plants, called organic matter. Dead organic matter tends to build up in wetlands. Organic matter decomposes more slowly under water than on land. This is because underwater microbes do not have all the oxygen they need to break it down quickly.

A successful core! You can see that the tube has mud, as well as some of the water from the wetland that was on top of the mud.

A successful core! You can see that the tube has mud, as well as some of the water from the wetland that was on top of the mud.

Under the right conditions, mud can act like fertilizer for a wetland. Nutrients, such as phosphorus, tend to build up in mud. This makes mud an important source of the phosphorus that algae and other plants need to grow. As a graduate student at Michigan State University, scientist Lauren was interested in what helped phosphorus stick to mud. She also wanted to know why phosphorus builds up more in some wetlands than others.

Although most mud is high in organic matter and high in nutrients, all mud is not created equal! The amounts of organic matter and nutrients are different from one ecosystem to the next. How quickly these materials enter or leave the mud may also change across ecosystems. Even within the same ecosystem mud can be very different from place to place. The molecules in organic matter could be a major source of phosphorus in mud. This would mean that wetlands with more organic matter would have more phosphorus.

Scientist Lauren measured organic matter and phosphorus in mud from 16 ecosystems (four lakes, five ponds, and seven wetlands). She wanted to determine if there was a relationship between the amount of organic matter and the amount of phosphorus in mud.

Featured scientist: Lauren Kinsman-Costello from Kent State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.7

More photos associated with this research 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:

Kinsman-Costello LE, J O’Brien, SK Hamilton (2014) Re-flooding a Historically Drained Wetland Leads to Rapid Sediment Phosphorus Release. Ecosystems 17:641-656

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 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 if there were more herbivores eating algae on the reef then corals would have less competition. Then they would have more 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!

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.

 

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

Float down the Kalamazoo River

Morrow Lake, a reservoir created along the Kalamazoo River. The water is held in a reservoir by a dam. When water flows into the reservoir it slows, potentially letting some of the total suspended solids settle to the bottom of the river.

Morrow Lake, a reservoir created along the Kalamazoo River. The water is held in a reservoir by a dam. When water flows into the reservoir it slows, potentially letting some of the total suspended solids settle to the bottom of the river.

The activities are as follows:

Ever since she was a kid, rivers have fascinated Leila. One of her hobbies is to kayak and canoe down the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, near where she lives. For her work, she researches all the living things in the river and how humans affect them. She is especially interested in changes in the river food web, caused by humans building dams along the river, and an oil spill in 2010.

Leila knows there is a lot more in river water than what meets the eye! As the river flows, it picks up bits of dead plants, single-celled algae, and other living and nonliving particles from the bottom of the river. The mix of all these particles is called total suspended solids (TSS) because these particles are suspended in the river water as it flows. The food web in the Kalamazoo River depends on the particles that are floating in the water. Invertebrates eat decomposing leaves and algae, and fish eat the invertebrates.

Leila showing off some of the cool invertebrates that can be found in the Kalamazoo River.

Leila showing off some of the cool invertebrates that can be found in the Kalamazoo River.

As you float down the river, particles settle to the river bottom and new ones are picked up. The amount of suspended solids in a river is influenced by how fast the water in the river is flowing. The faster the water flows, the more particles are picked up and carried down the river. The slower the water flows, the more particles will settle to the bottom. Discharge is a measure of how fast water is flowing. You can think about discharge as the number of cubes (one foot on each side) filled with water that pass by a point every second. During certain times of the year, water flows faster and there is more discharge. In spring, when the snow starts melting, a lot of water drains from the land into the river. There also tends to be a lot more rain in the fall. Things humans build on the river can also affect discharge. For example, we build dams to generate hydroelectric power by capturing the energy from flowing water. Dams slow the flow of river water, and therefore they may cause some of the suspended solids to settle out of the water and onto the bottom of the river.

Leila wanted to test how a dam that was built on the Kalamazoo River influenced total suspended solids. If the dam is reducing the amount of total suspended solids, it could have negative effects on the food chain. She was also curious to see if the dam has different effects depending on the time of year. On eight different days from May to October in 2009, Leila measured total suspended solids at two locations along river. She collected water samples upstream of the dam, before the water enters the reservoir, and samples downstream after the water has been in the reservoir and passed over the dam. She also measured discharge downstream of the dam.

KalamazooRiver

Featured scientist: Leila Desotelle from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.7