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Climate, Cryosphere, Geosphere, Hydrosphere, Oceans



If hiking one of Glacier National Park's ice fields is an item on your "to do list", you might want to start planning your trip right now. Earth's mountain glaciers are disappearing. In Glacier National Park alone, over 120 of the 150 named mountain glaciers that dominated the park's landscapes have vanished since 1850. Results from one recent study suggest that if present climate trends continue all of the remaining named glaciers in the basin will be gone by 2030.

Want to see the snows on Mt. Kilimanjaro? Better hurry. Results from aerial surveys and field studies conducted by a team of glaciologists from The Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center indicate that permanent ice fields on Africa's highest mountain have shrunk by 80% over the past decade and could completely disappear by 2022.

Mountain glaciers exist on every continent except Australia. Mountain glaciers develop in high mountainous regions. They often flow out of ice fields that span several peaks or an entire mountain range. The largest mountain glaciers are found in Arctic Canada, Alaska, the Andes in South America, the Himalayas in Asia, and on Antarctica. Although mountain glaciers contain only a small fraction of the Earth's total glacier ice mass, one sixth of the world's population lives in glacier fed river basins. Mountain glacier melt water accounts for one-fourth of the water in Earth's mountain streams. Changes in the amount or timing of glacier water run-off have serious implications for the people and ecosystems in the mountain ranges where mountain glaciers are found.

Mountain glaciers shrink when the amount of ice lost through evaporation, sublimation and/or melting exceeds the amount of snow and ice deposited on the glacier in a year. Annual losses result in reductions in the size of mountain glaciers known as retreats. Although a variety of complex factors affect how much ice is gained or lost, the stability of the amount of ice (mass balance) in mountain glaciers depends primarily on two things: how much snow falls in the winter and how warm it gets in the summer.

There are mountain glaciers in Alaska, Norway and other places that are growing, but scientists agree that the global trend for mountain glaciers is retreat. The retreat of less remote mountain glaciers is apparent in comparisons of historical to recent photographs of a variety of mountain glaciers from around the world. Satellite data indicate that glaciers in Alaska, Peru, Africa, the Himalayas and elsewhere have experienced varying degrees of loss of ice mass in the past decade.

Predicting the long-term futures of mountain glaciers is very complex. Mountain glaciers are very small compared to the huge continental glaciers found in Arctic or Antarctic polar regions. They are often located in remote, difficult to access areas in ranges encompassing a wide variety of topographic and climate environments. Each mountain glacier has a unique relationship with the surrounding terrain and microclimate. All of these factors make it extremely difficult to formulate general statements about glacier response even within a single range. According to the 2010 United Nations Environment Programme report on high mountain glaciers and climate change, mountain glacier models are normally based on data from a small number of glaciers that is applied to a larger region. Most current predictions are based on static models that explore how snow and ice melt rates will change under different climate change scenarios, but fail to take into account future changes in glacier geometry.

As for the mountain glaciers in Glacier National Park or on Mt. Kilimanjaro, it won't be long before the accuracy or inaccuracy of predictions becomes very apparent. You might want to start planning now if you want to see the snows of Kilimanjaro or hike on a glacier in Glacier National Park.

Note: The NASA GRACE and TRMM missions can be useful in analyzing water issues. Instructions on accessing this data are here.



At a recent "town meeting", your U.S. Congressional Representative had a hard time defending her voting record on environmental legislation related to carbon emission reductions. A very vocal group at that meeting cited the advance of glaciers in Norway and the Himalayas as evidence that global warming is not only not happening, but that Earth's climate is possibly heading into a period of cooling. She wants to be better prepared to address the issues surrounding changes in mountain glaciers for her next town meeting. She has asked your team to conduct an independent study of the factors influencing the stability of mountain glaciers, the potential impacts changes in their stability could have on the people and environments near them and the implications your findings have for climate change.


Date: 12/6/2011

Scenario Images:

Mountain Glacier Retreat
The average annual rate of thinning, a negative net mass balance, between 1970 and 2004 for 173 mountain glaciers. More.... Image: Robert A. Rohde / Global Warming Art

Kilimanjaro Then and Now
African Rift Zone: Kilimanjaro Glacier - top view, photographed by NASA's Landsat satellite on Feb. 17, 1993 (left) and again on Feb. 21, 2000 (right). More... Image: NASA's Global Ice Viewer

A Century of Ice Loss on Kilimanjaro
Kilimanjaro glacier recession map. Over the 20th century, the areal extent of Kilimanjaro's ice fields has decreased about 80%, and if current climatological conditions persist, the remaining ice fields are likely to disappear between 2015 and 2020. Image: Byrd Polar Research Center at The Ohio State University.

Grinnell Glacier 1940 and 2006
Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park, 1940 and 2006. Time lapse animation for 1981-2006 changes. Images: Unknown and K. Holzer, Glacier National Park Archives

Qore Kalis Glacier 1978 and 2004
Qore Kalis Glacier in the Andes 1978 and 2004. Repeat photographs are used to determine changes in glaciers over time. This Peruvian glacier may completely disappear very soon. Images: National Snow and Ice Data World Data Center and Lonnie G. Thompson.



All About Glaciers (Cycle A)
The story of glaciers from formation through retreat and more. From National Snow and Ice Data Center.


Changing Planet: Melting Glaciers (Cycle A)
Five minute NBC Learn Video, narrated by Ann Thompson, traces the worlds mountain glaciers as their vast volume of ice is sublimating and melting. Extensive footage of Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro is featured. Hosted by Windows to the Universe.


High Mountain Glaciers and Climate Change (Cycle A)
This United Nations Environment Programme report explores the challengers to human livelihoods and adaption resulting from changes in high mountain glaciers. Available in pdf and e-book formats.


Himlayan Glacier Melt Error (Cycle A)
"Faced with criticism of a widely quoted piece of analysis from its 2007 climate assessment that warned that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was forced to admit to relying on dubious scientific sources, apologized and retracted its earlier estimate." From Time Magazine.


Climate-Induced Glacier Change in Glacier National PArk 1850-2100 (Cycle B)
Simulation reflecting the predicted exponential rise in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, a 2xCO2 "global warming" scenario, with a concurrent warming of 2-3 degrees centigrade (4-5 degrees Fahrenheit) by the year 2050. From USGS. More....


Dust Hastens Colorado River Snowmelt, Cuts Flow (Cycle B)
The deposition of dust on winter snow fall is hastening the melting of snowfall as well as some glacial melting. This article from the USGS discusses this phenomenon.


Mountain Glacier Melt Contribution to World Sea-Level Rise (Cycle B)
"Melt off from small mountain glaciers and ice caps will contribute about 12 centimetres to world sea-level increases by 2100, according to UBC research published this week in Nature Geoscience." From Scienc Daily.


The Retreat of Mt. Kilimanjaro (Cycle B)
This National Science Foundation Multimedia Gallery Report shows the retreat of the Mt Kilimanjaro Glacier since 1912. It shows the areas of total ice cover over a century of measurements.


Tropical Glacier Retreat (Cycle B)
Explores the basics, physics, uncertainties, and more of tropical glacier retreat. From RealClimate.


Worldwide Glacier Retreat (Cycle B)
"One of the most visually compelling examples of recent climate change is the retreat of glaciers in mountain regions." From RealClimate.


Glacier Photograph Collections (Cycle C)
The following sites have repeat photos for comparisons:

  • NSIDC (National Snow and Ice Data Center)
  • Glacier National Park Archives
  • Photographic History of Glacier National Park.


NASA Climate Sites, Visualization Tools and Lesson Plans (Cycle C)
The following NASA sites provide in-dept information, tools and lesson plans exploring the causes and impacts of climate change:

  • Global Ice Viewer - Comparison images for many mountain glacier locations as well as Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland Glaciers. Links to the Landsat-7 and Aster and Modis visible ice images.
  • Giovanni - The Bridge Between Data and Science - Displays Earth science data from NASA satellites directly on the Internet, without the difficulties of traditional data acquisition and analysis methods. User friendly.
  • NASA Climate Kids - Climate news, information and interactives for kids and teachers too.
  • Climate Time Machine - interactive - Go backward and forward in time and see how the Earth changes.
  • Global Climate Change - News, information, interactives, images, videos and more about climate change.
  • Eyes on the Earth 3D - interactive - Go on a mission with one of NASA's satellites. Learn how satellites work and explore the information they provide about Earth's land, oceans and atmosphere.
  • MY NASA DATA - Climate change lesson plans using NASA satellite data by grade level and topic.


Sample Investigations:


Changing Planet: Melting Glaciers (Cycle A)
Students sort photographs of glaciers and measure glacial retreat to observe how alpine glaciers have retreated over the past century.
Difficulty: intermediate
Use Glaciers: Then and Now version for grades 4-8.


Investigate Glaciers Using Google Earth (Cycle A)
Users need to have Google Earth loaded before downloading glacier data from this site.
Difficulty: beginner


Studying Snow and Ice Changes (Cycle A)
In this MY NASA DATA investigation students examine how snow and ice cover have changed on the Earth from 1994 to 2004, and practice using data analysis tools.
Difficulty: advanced


Glacial Impact: What Does It Look Like? (Cycle B)
In this investigation, students explore the relationship between glaciers and Earth's geophysical and biological systems. It is part of a comprehensive glacier unit from the National Park System. Teacher and student materials provided.
Difficulty: beginner


Glaciers "Talk": The Impact of Climate on Earth (Cycle B)
In this three part activity students explore the relationship between glaciers and Earth's climate. This activity is part of a comprehensive glacier unit from the National Park System. Teacher and student materials provided.
Difficulty: beginner


Melting Mountains: Climate Change and Glaciers (Cycle B)
In this investigation students understand how the effects of rising temperatures on glaciers.
Difficulty: intermediate


Exploring Benchmark Glaciers (Cycle C)
The USGS Benchmark Glacier program has glacier mass balance, temperature and runoff temporal data for 3 North American glaciers. Students can either access the raw data or use prepared plots to analyze changes over time.
Difficulty: advanced


Google Earth Tours of Glacial Change (Cycle C)
A detailed Google Earth tour of glacier change over the last 50 years is given in class as an introduction. Students are then asked to select from a group of glaciers and create their own Google Earth tour exploring key characteristics and evident changes in that glacier. Pre-existing knowledge: students must be able to look at glaciers in Google Earth and understand what they are seeing.
Difficulty: advanced


You're as Cold as Ice! (Cycle C)
In this comprehensive investigation students explore the characteristics, processes and impacts of glaciers and the relationships between glaciers and climate and climate change.
Difficulty: advanced




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Constancy, change, and measurement
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Populations, resources, and environments
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
        • Geochemical cycles
        • Origin and evolution of the earth system
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Population growth
        • Natural resources
        • Natural and human-induced hazards
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      Physical processes shape Earth’s surface and interact with plant and animal life to create, sustain, and modify ecosystems. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth’s surface
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How physical systems affect human systems
      Knowledge of geography enables people to develop an understanding of the relationships between people, places, and environments over time — that is, of Earth as it was, is, and might be. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students use telecommunications to collaborate, publish, and interact with peers, experts, and other audiences.
      • Students use a variety of media and formats to communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences.
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