In this section

Teachers’ notes | Glaciers

Learning objectives:

  • To understand the key processes and geographical vocabulary of glaciers and glaciation
  • To find out more about the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica
  • To explore modern methods of measuring and monitoring the formation, movement, change and retreat of glaciers

Cool clip

The cool clip shows a convoy of equipment travelling across the ice. The different elements within the convoy are discussed in the Exploring Ice section, which looks at research methods and equipment in more depth. The tractor at the front of the convoy has a special blade to shovel the snow and can carry up to 43 tons of fuel, people and equipment across the ice.

So you think you know about glaciers?

The icebreaker interactive helps students to understand the key processes associated with glaciation, and also begins the introduction of key geographical vocabulary for the topic. A method of assessment, this interactive could be used as a starter activity to determine initial understanding of the topic, or as an introduction to the module following a short overview of the topic from the teacher.

What are glaciers?

This section introduces two types of glacier:

  • Valley Glaciers: these mainly form in cold mountain ranges where snow still accumulates, for example in the Alps or Himalayas. The glaciers then flow slowly down the valley.
  • Continental Glaciers: these are extremely slow moving thick ice sheets that cover part of a continent, for example in Antarctica or Greenland. In Antarctica ice forms a dome in the centre of the continent and moves extremely slowly down towards the edges of the ice sheet.

Both include images from the British Antarctic Survey image collection, which can be used to further consolidate learning.

This leads on to how glaciers are formed. This section could be made interactive by using marshmallows with the students to demonstrate the build-up of layers of snow over time. You could also supplement this by making your own glacier to show students how glaciers erode the landscape, the details of which can be found on the British Geological Survey website.

This is followed by an introduction to Pine Island Glacier. Pine Island is located on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and is the most rapidly shrinking glacier on the planet. It is around 2km thick but it has been thinning by more than 1 metre each year for the past 15 years. This means it has the potential to make a large contribution to sea-level rise. For example, in July 2013 a large iceberg broke away (calved) from the ice sheet. Scientists are investigating why the glacier is accelerating. Pine Island is where a lot of the measuring and monitoring techniques explored in the next section are being used.

Useful links for this section include:

NASA Image of Pine Island glacier with a huge crack in it
BBC article about Pine Island Glacier retreat
Pine Island information from a glaciation expert, Dr Bethan Davies. You can also read an Ask the Expert interview with Bethan about Antarctic glaciers.

Glacial features

This diagram displays the cross section of a valley glacier introducing some of the key features and terminology that are used when studying glaciers. The focus here should be on the processes and also the vocabulary. You might want to use some imagery here too, and encourage the students to locate these features on a real life glacier.

A good glacial glossary can be found at the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences

Using the glaciers dominoes, the students will reinforce the ideas they have learnt through the diagram and glacial vocabulary. This allows an element of assessment as well as an element of fun!

Exploring ice

This section gives students an opportunity to find out about the cutting edge science behind the monitoring of glaciers. It includes information from British Antarctic Survey about the work they are doing on Pine Island and in other areas, and shows the different ways that ice movements, retreat and change can be observed and recorded.

The best place to start is the Antarctic Research Equipment on Pine Island Glacier document which gives an overview of some of the equipment used, along with pictures so students are able to see what these items look like. The interactive activity then takes this a stage further and shows how the research is actually done using some of these items. Encourage students to think about what each of the techniques are trying to achieve, and what the limitations might be.

You can find out more about the research taking place on Pine Island Glacier at: iSTAR – NERC Ice Sheet Stability Programme – Investigating the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Pine Island Glacier

Using what they have seen in the exploring ice interactive about how scientists research glaciers and the information sheet about some of the equipment used, students should think about what it must be like to do research in a remote environment like Pine Island Glacier.

They will take the role of a newsreader that has joined the research team on Pine Island Glacier and present a short news report about the research taking place on Pine Island Glacier. They might like to actually video the news reports (if you have the equipment to do so) and show them on the IWB.

Make sure they explain:

  • what the environment is like around them
  • what the scientists are trying to do on Pine Island Glacier
  • why researching Pine Island Glacier is important

This is a good opportunity for students to participate in peer assessment and score each other as to whether they have explained what they have been asked to. Students should feedback to each group about what they did well and how they could improve their news report.

Additional sources of information about glaciation: