Glacier Activities


Glaciers flow like honey, they move faster when they are warmer and slower when they are colder.

Rocks freeze onto the underside of glaciers, like grains of sand stuck to the bottom of a stick of butter.  Ice doesn’t erode mountains, it’s the rocks frozen in the base of the ice sheet that erode mountains because it acts like sandpaper.

Glaciers flow faster in the middle at the surface, just like a river does.  This happens because of the friction or drag at the bottom and edges of the glacier slow it down.

A bent Snickers bar  may look like a glacier surface in that the places where the chocolate split apart look like crevasses.

A glacier acts like a conveyor belt, transporting rocks and dumping them at the glacier edge.

A glacier may act like a bulldozer, pushing up the gravel and sediment in front of it to form a push moraine.

Have you ever gone to the beach and seen the little lines of sand that the water leaves at the farthest edge of the wave (you have to look very closely)?  Or have you ever been drinking a hot chocolate and as you drink, you can see lines of how high the drink used to be in the cup because of the foam lines on the inside of the cup?  The line of sand and line of foam are both like moraines because the lines mark the edge of where something used to be.

Glacier melt

Ocean water, ocean currents, wind, humidity, and sunlight can all cause melt.


18. Ice flow direction
17. Measuring snow depth
16. Be H2O
15. Use your senses
14. Climate observations
13. Glaciers, sea ice, ice sheets, and ice shelves
12. Glacier scratches
11. Find the glacier!
10. Ice cube experiment
9. Cold colors
8. Flubber glacier
7. Sandpit
6. Sandpit II
5. Snow and weather journal
4. Snow to water to nothing
3. Plan a field expedition
2. Make a glacier
1. If you were made of ice


18. ICE FLOW DIRECTION (Grades 3-12)

Materials: Rocks in pairs of five different lithologies (e.g. granite, slate, schist, one bowling-ball sized and one hand sample).  Towel, jackets or something to cover the big rocks.  Masking tape, string or something visual to show a straight line.

Goals: Use detective skills to figure out which direction the ice was flowing to move the little rock from the source location (where the big rock is) to its final site location.  This activity gets students to compare rock types (which ones look similar or different), think about flow direction, and begin to understand how scientists figure out flow direction of ice sheets that no longer exist.


  1. Put the big rocks around the classroom and put towels or jackets over them.
  2. Pick five students to pretend to be ‘a glacier’.
  3. Have all other students leave the room or put their heads down.
  4. Hand each of the five students a small hand sample rock and have them start at the big rock of the same lithology.  Tell them that when you give them the signal, they need to walk in a straight line, any direction and any distance they want, and set down on the floor, then quietly walk to the front of the room.
  5. Group the rest of the students into groups of 2 or 3, depending on the size of your class.  Tell them that there are small rocks and big rocks hidden around the classroom.  In their groups, they have to find one of the small rocks, but they are not allowed to touch it or move it.  They need to study the rock and then look for the big rock that matches.  The big rocks are under the jackets (kind of like how outside, the rocks are hidden under trees and soil) and they can lift the jacket, see if it looks like their rock or not, and keep going until they find their match.  Their match is the ‘source’ rock, where the glacier picked up the rock.
  6. Once they have found the source rock and the erratic (hand sample), have them make a straight line between the two with masking tape, a piece of string, or just their arm.


  • Have each group have one person talk about what their rock looks like.  Have another student talk about how they found the source rock and how many jackets they had to look under and if they had to go back and look at the hand sample again.  And have the third student talk about which way the glacier must have flowed from the source to the erratic.
  • Talk about how geologists used their detective skills to figure out that glaciers once covered parts of the Earth that do not have glaciers today.  These discoveries showed scientists that the Earth experienced an ice age, a time when the Earth was a bit colder than today and ice sheets covered northern North America, Scandinavia and the British Isles.
  • Tell them that the theory of what causes ice ages to start and stop is still a mystery, and the best ways to solve this kind of puzzle is through creativity, persistence, and building upon work done by others.

17. MEASURING SNOW DEPTH (Grades 3-12)

Materials: Meter stick, open snowy sites where people don’t walk, clipboard, pencil and paper. Invest in a wireless weather station  (I use the AcuRite 00829 Digital Weather Station with Forecast/Temperature/Clock/Moon Phase, under $30 from K-Mart) so you can see temperature measurements at the beginning and end of the school day. You can add a GPS to mark the locations if you want your students exposed to mapping as well.

Goals: Students will learn the art of taking measurements, putting these data into a spreadsheet, and graphing the change in snow depth over time.  If mapping is involved, students can think about spatial variability in snow (due to topography, winds, etc).


  1. Before you go outside, assign the students into pairs, have them put on their outdoor gear, and give each pair a clipboard, Snow Depth Science form, pencil, and meter stick or ruler depending on snow depth.
  2. Have students pick a site that is:
    • Not near buildings, structures, trees, or anything that would influence the snow fall
    • Not on a sidewalk or path where the snow would be disturbed
    • In a location that they can find again (consider having wooden stake markers with bright flagging tape tied to the top so the student can be consistent with where they are measuring snow depth)
  3. Have students fill out the form (Name, date, snow depth, site description, observations, weather)
  4. Repeat as often as you like (weekly, biweekly), it is important for the student to get into a regular habit for collecting data, even if there is no snow, zero is still an important measurement!
  5. If you only measure once a week, it might be good for the class (or each student) to keep a daily weather journal, noting temperatures and snowy days.  You can talk about using SI units (International System of Units) such as deg C and meters instead of deg F and inches.
  6. Snow depth data should be entered into a spreadsheet after each measurement is taken.  I suggest you keep the spreadsheet simple, column 1 is the date, column 2-15 contain the data from each snow depth site.  You can make plots in Excel showing snow depth over time.


  • Did snow depth change by the same amount at all sites over time?
  • What might influence the amount of snow in different locations (shade? low spot in the ground? water running through the site?)
  • How did snow depth change over the winter?
  • Why might it be important to study snow depth? (Predict flooding, water supply, skiing)

16. BE H2O (I’ve never tried this, might be too crazy for kids)

Materials: Blue fabric/paper, white fabric/paper, and clear fabric/transparency, 4 dice, big open space

Goals: Students will act out the phase change and water cycle.  This will probably be a logistical nightmare, so you might want to look at the other activities below.


  1. Explain to the students that they are going to pretend to be H2O molecules, all starting at one part of the circle, all with white fabric/paper, this is the ice phase, they are part of a glacier.
  2. As they slowly move ‘downhill’ (around the circle) they are entering a warmer place, and at the Melt Point they roll a die.  If it is 3, 4, 5, or 6, they switch their white fabric (ice phase) with the blue fabric (liquid phase) .
  3. In the liquid phase, they might have to meander like a stream or swim in the ‘ocean’.
  4. Then at the Evaporation Point, have students roll another die, if they roll a 1 or 2, they can trade their blue paper for a clear transparency (water vapor), and continue on around the circle.  If they roll a 3 or higher, they have to swim for 10 seconds, then try again.


Discussion: How does the phase of H2O relate to temperature? Or to elevation?  How do temperature and elevation relate?  Is it difficult to ‘evaporate’?  What happens if you warm the air?  Which way would the Melt Point move?  Would the Condensation Point move as well?  Which zone are you going to shrink with a warming atmosphere?

15. USE YOUR SENSES (4-12 grade)

Materials: Internet connection and way to project videos, pencil, paper

Goals: Students will imagine themselves as glaciologists and describe their experience.


  1. Before doing this in front of the class, go through the steps on your own.
  2. Pick a few glacier videos (from above or elsewhere) and watch them as a group.
  3. Ask the students to answer the following questions on their piece of paper while watching the videos:
    • What can you smell?
    • How does it feel (temperature, surface of ice, footing)?
    • What can you hear (at your feet, a few meters away, far in the distance)?
    • What is behind you (right behind you, far behind you)?
    • Why are you there?
    • What are you thinking about?
  4. On a separate piece of paper or on their computer, have the students write a letter to a friend or a short story describing where they are, why they are there, and what it’s like. As the students to give you one sentence from their story/letter.
  5. Ask students to write down questions to ask a glaciologists (Where do you go to the bathroom? What do you eat? Do you have to worry about polar bears?).
  6. For the following class session, put all of the individual sentences together into a story (this might not work, but it could be amazing).

Discussion: You could ask students to share or you could talk through your thoughts.

14. CLIMATE OBSERVATIONS (8 grade to intro college)

Making observations is a key skill in science (and life).  I suggest setting this up as a ‘Team Matrix’ exercise where small groups of students become the expert in one of the climate maps and then one expert from each group joins with other experts to discuss similarities and differences.  No background necessary, but might be better for high school and college students (but I bet some fourth graders would love this too).

Materials: Elevation map, Temperature map, Precipitation map, Pressure map, printed in color (if you have 20 students, print 5 of each map; if you have 24 students, print 6 of each map).

Goals: Students will make observations to come up with hypotheses about how temperature, precipitation, pressure and elevation relate to one another over the globe.  Something basic like “Regions of high pressure are also usually dry” is an awesome hypothesis! (High elevation regions are cooler, warmer places are wetter, etc.).


  1. Divide the class into four groups, give each group a map.  Have students write down what the map is showing and to make some general statements (the tropics are warm).
  2. Mix the groups so you now have groups with an expert from each map type.  Have the students each share their map (say what it shows and some generalities).  Then have students write out at least three hypotheses about how these climate factors influence each other, is there a clear leader and follower (e.g. high elevation causes cooler temperatures).
  3. Have groups write their hypotheses up on the board (separate space for each group) and then have each group present one of their hypotheses out loud to the class.

Discussion: Where there some common observations?  What questions do students have about other observations they made?  How would they test their hypotheses?  Are there exceptions to their hypotheses that they can think of?  Are there questions they would like send to a real climate scientist?

annual_average_temperature_map   elevation   annpptnannslp

Click on the maps above to save them and print them in color.  These and other climate maps can be found online or on the Climate Reanalyzer webpage.

13. GLACIERS, SEA ICE, ICE SHEETS AND ICE SHELVES (4 grade to intro college, everyone should do this worksheet)

It isn’t always easy remembering the differences between glaciers, sea ice, ice sheets, and ice shelves, so I made a ‘Team Matrix’ activity where the students break into small groups and become experts in one of these ice features, then they pair up with students from the other groups to teach each other about the similarities and differences between these four components of the cryosphere.

Materials: iPads or access to computers for Google Image searches, IceTypeIntro, IceTypeDescriptions, TeamMatrixTable, and TeachingInstructions.

Goals: Distinguish between glaciers, sea ice, ice sheets, and ice shelves and their individual impacts on sea level rise in a warming climate.


  1. Divide class into 4 groups, give each person a TeamMatrixTable worksheet.  Every student in Group 1 should have the half-sheet description of glaciers, Group 2 is sea ice, Group 3 is ice sheets and Group 4 is ice shelves (print and cut these ahead of time).
  2. Tell the students to fill in the info in the table for only their ice type, make sure everyone in the group agrees and then look up images online of only their ice type.
  3. Break and reconnect the groups so that each new group has one expert from each ice type (like a jigsaw activity).  They keep teaching each other until their TeamMatrixTable is full.
  4. Open notes quiz (optional).  Show them the final slide in the IceTypesIntro.pdf and have them identify each of the four features and how they will remember them.

Discussion: Which ice types will contribute to sea level?  Why does this matter (coastal erosion, huge populations living near or at sea level will be displaced, island nations disappearing)?  Glaciers all over the world are melting, ice sheets are too.  Our choices impact the world.

Send me questions, I’m happy to Skype!


Materials: Lots of small and pointy objects (e.g. jax/marbles/pebbles), 2 colors of play-dough (you can make your own), keep one of the play-dough colors cold (in the fridge) if possible.

Goals: Visualize how glaciers freeze rocks into their base and use these rocks to erode and scratch the bedrock.


  1. Take the room-temperature play-dough and make a flat road with it.  This is the ‘bedrock’.
  2. Take the cold play-dough and mold it into a ball-ish shape that will fit in your hand.
  3. Put the small objects on the table and push the cold ball onto the objects (they should get stuck to the bottom). This is your glacier with rocks at the base.
  4. Drag the ‘glacier’ over the ‘bedrock’ in one direction and see if you scratches.

Discussion: The scratches that glaciers leave in bedrock are called striations or striae.  They tell us:

  1. Glaciers were here
  2. Glaciers flowed in one of these directions

When the first ice-age detectives were traveling the world, looking for evidence of glaciers, striations were a great clue!

  • How can we tell which way the glacier flowed?
    • We have to think about where the glacier grew from, in North America, the ice sheet grew out from Canada, so in New England, the striations are oriented N-S
  • What does it mean if there are striations in multiple directions?
    • Multiple flow patterns: Along the coast of Maine, there are striations from when the ice sheet was big and thick and flowing from the North.  There are other striations that are parallel to the valleys along the coast that formed when the ice was thinner and restricted by the valley walls.

For more images of striations (to help train your eye) go to Erosional Features


Striations (ice flow direction left to right). Downeast Maine.

11. FIND THE GLACIERS! (4-12 Grade)

Materials: Computers with internet access and Google Earth Pro (free!) downloaded.

Goals: Students will be able to identify, locate, measure, and describe glaciers around the world.  These are skills needed in remote sensing (mapping and measuring features from satellite images without actually traveling there).

Experiment:  I think it is best to let students explore Google Earth for a few minutes (zoom into a tropical island, find a volcano, go to a country they might want to visit).  This helps them get comfortable with the features and also gets some of the jitters out.  When you are ready to proceed, have them find a glacier at:

  1. 70-80 deg North or South Latitude
    • Where are they? (Country name, latitude, longitude, elevation)
    • Is there a lot of ice nearby? (use the length tool to measure the length of your glacier)
    • Describe your glacier (length, shape, highest point to lowest point in elevation, crevasses, snow versus ice, rock debris cover, distance from the ocean)
  2. 40-50 deg North or South Latitude
    • answer the same questions as above
  3. 0-20 deg North or South Latitude

Discussion: What did they discover? Less ice in the tropics? Ice at lower elevations near the poles? Different shapes or appearances? Could they tell which areas were ‘wet’ (lots of snow) and ‘dry’? What questions do they now have after their initial observations?  Feel free to send them to me or a glaciologist near you!


Additional Experiment: GLACIER RETREAT!

Goals: Students will be able to measure the length of glacial retreat over time, thus calculating the rate of retreat for three specific glaciers.  These skills in remote sensing combine observation, using tools, applying understanding of a system, and creating a visual representation of climate change.

Experiment:  I think it is best to let students explore Google Earth for a few minutes (zoom into a tropical island, find a volcano, go to a country they might want to visit).  This helps them get comfortable with the features and also gets some of the jitters out.  When you are ready to proceed, search for these glaciers:

  1. Search for Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
    • Where was the glacier terminus in 2013 vs 2006? (Hint: use the time travel button to view imagery through time)
    • Measure the distance between ice extent of the two years (~600 m) (Hint: use the measuring tool)
    • Calculate the rate of ice retreat over time (600m/7years=85m/yr, can you measure this out in the hallway?)
  2. Tasman Glacier, New Zealand
    • This one is a bit tricky because the glacier is covered by rock debris and is melting away in this pro-glacial lake
    • Where is the edge of dirty ice – lake in 2006 vs 2013? Measure the distance between the ice fronts
  3. Go to -64.221160° latitude, -59.043325° longitude,
    • Measure distance between the ice front in 1998 vs 2012

Discussion: What did they discover? Are the rates similar in these different places?  What could make ice retreat rates faster or slower?  What questions do they now have after their initial observations?  Feel free to send them to me or a glaciologist near you!


You can adapt this activity to fit the age group you are teaching (K-12 science experiment lesson).  For younger groups, just the concept of ice cubes melting into water is pretty great.  Older students might want to make more observations or tie their results into the real world.  There is no harm in introducing the energy balance equation (melt= (1-albedo)*solar radiation + longwave incoming + longwave outgoing + latent heat flux + sensible heat flux + ground heat flux + heat supplied by rain).  Have fun with it!  I have not tried this experiment more than once or with different sized ice cubes, so I don’t know how long your slowest one will take to melt, perhaps an hour, depending on the size of the ice cube, room temperature, and humidity.

Materials: Ice cubes (roughly the same size), hair drier or fan, glass of cool water with thermometer if available, glass of cool salt water with thermometer if available, 3 plates, heat lamp, 5 or more stop watches (or you can just note the start and finish times on a clock and calculate melt times).

Goal: To see how different environments influence glacier melt.  This can help students understand phase change (ice to water), displacement (ice cubes in water), sea level change (glacier melt water goes into the ocean), and different energies that causes ice to melt.

Experiment: Set up the different stations, each with a stopwatch or two:

  1. plate with hair drier
  2. plate with heat lamp or in the sun
  3. plate
  4. glass with salt water
  5. glass with cold fresh water

Have students predict the order of which conditions will cause an ice cube the fastest.  Bring in a tray of ice cubes that are close to the same size, set one up at each station (one on the plate, one in the glass, etc.), and have students note the time or start the stop watches.  While the cubes are melting, talk about glaciers and the different environments you have set up (1-hot wind like a tropical storm, 2-land-terminating glacier in the sun, 3-land-terminating glacier in the shade, 4-ocean-terminating glacier, 5-lake-terminating glacier).  Check on the ice cubes every few minutes and have the students make observations (is it half the size? Is it making noise? What do you notice?).  Once you get a sense of how fast the cubes are melting, check on them accordingly (keep your eye on the fan/hair drier because that should melt first). The ice cube left on the plate in the shade might take much longer to melt than the ice cube subjected to hot wind.

My results at home: fan (6 min), fresh water (8 min), salt water (15 min), shade (18 min), in sun (20 min), it was a cool summer day with high humidity and the plates were on different surfaces, which could transfer heat differently.  The melt time difference between ice cubes in salt and fresh water surprised me, let me know if you get a similar result.  I think the shade/in sun difference is more because the plates were on different surfaces, which conduct heat differently, and it wasn’t really sunny, just cloudy, so try it out and see what happens in the direct sunlight.

Discussion: Talk about the times of different stations (results) and what environment each station represents. Compare these results with their hypotheses and have them relate this experiment to real-world glaciers.

  • Which station melted the ice the fastest?
  • What are the uncertainties (ice cube size or air bubbles in the ice, change in water temperature over time, room temperature change over time, humidity, breeze in the classroom, etc.)?
  • Which environments on earth are not suitable for a glacier?
  • What would happen if a lake grew in front of a glacier (would it melt faster?)?

Additional Experiments: Try a range of water temperatures, different settings on the hair drier for different ice cubes, try a fan instead of a hair drier to simulate wind, use plates that allow the water to drain away (slightly tilted) versus plates that do not, stirring the glasses of water and leaving some alone, or try a combination (in the sun in a glass of salt water with the hair drier – icebergs don’t last long in tropical oceans).  If you live in a place with snow, you could do these experiments with a cup of snow instead, the results will occur much faster (almost instant in water, just make sure you pack the cup the same way each time because fluffy snow will melt faster than densely packed snow).

Plates, cups of salt and fresh water, and a fan!

Plates, cups of salt and fresh water, and a fan!

9. COLD COLORS (from young Alice, Grade K-8)

Materials: Food coloring (blue, green, red, yellow), ice cube tray, freezer, 4 identical white bowls, timer

Goal: Introduce the concept of albedo and shortwave radiation, or just think about darker surfaces heating up more than lighter surfaces.

Experiment: Predict which color ice cube will melt the fastest (blue, green, red, yellow).  Measure out 1/8 Cup water and pour that into one chamber of the ice cube tray, repeat 3 more times so you have 4 pre-ice cubes.  Put two drops of blue food coloring into the first chamber, then 2 drops of green into the next, etc.  Freeze the tray for 2 hours.  Pop the cubes out and put each one into a bowl and set all the bowls near each other in the direct sunlight.  Time how long it takes each cube to melt.

Discussion: Different colors absorb different amounts of light.  Depending on the age group, you can talk about shortwave radiation (sunlight) and albedo (amount of sunlight that a surface reflects).  Ice and snow in nature have a high albedo (reflect lots of sun) but when that surface is darkened (by dust, rock fall, ash, or melt pools on the surface) the dark material absorbs more light energy and can heat up, melting the ice around it.

Additional Experiments: You could make this experiment more ‘realistic’ by having clean snow, snow with ash, snow with pebbles, wet snow, each in its own container (maybe small, white yogurt containers) and measure how fast each melts.  Leave the containers outside in the winter during cold, sunny days, this will have the greatest effect on your snow samples (albedo doesn’t matter in the dark).

Meltwater pools

Meltwater pools change the color of the surface and the blue absorbs more light energy that the white snow and ice.  These pools can absorb more heat and cause more melting!

Pebbles melt through ice

Pebbles are dark, absorb sunlight, heat up and melt through ice

8. FLUBBER GLACIER (Grade 9-12)

Materials: Flubber (see recipe in the link below)

Goal: Help students visualize how glacier flow (slowly, and due to gravity and their own weight).

Experiment: Once the flubber has been made, pick up a piece and pull it apart slowly, show how it stretches.  Then pull it quickly, show how it breaks, ice can do this too.  Then make a tall column of flubber on a desk and leave it alone while you talk about glaciers flowing under their own weight due to gravity (flubber will flatten and spread out on the table as you talk, just like an ice sheet would).

Discussion: Draw pictures on the board about how ice sheets flow outward from the center, just like this mound of flubber.  Once the flubber has flattened somewhat, have students make observations – flat, large area, smooth, not a liquid but not what they usually call solid.  What happens if you break a chunk off, or remove a pie slice?  Think about Antarctica and how the ice sheet responds to ice calving (breaking off into the water), one chunk goes, the ice flows into that void and lowers overall.

Additional Experiments: You could bring in other materials, like a half-pipe on an incline and some beads to mark the surface and watch the glacier flow ‘down-valley’ over time. Here is a flubber-glacier experiment.  The video takes a while to load, but is interesting.  The link also includes different ideas for experiments (salt water floating, calving event, angle of glacier bed).  Silly Putty is also a good analog for glacier flow, but can be expensive and can get dirty quickly.  Flubber hardens and dries out if left out on the counter, so it is best to store it in a bucket with a lid and you can use it several years in a row.  Please consider the health risks associated with Borax.

Flubber glacier by Megan Essig

Flubber glacier by Megan Essig

7. SANDPIT (Grade K-4)

Materials: Sandpit with Weetbix (or other cereal that will dissolve in the rain)

Goals: Expose students to a range of glacial landforms and talk about glacial processes.

Experiment: Go out to the sandpit, if your school does not have a sandpit, perhaps they should invest in one because sand can be incredible for play, imagination, and all sorts of geologic models.  Build a large mound to represent your mountain and form a valley in one side.  Sprinkle Weetbix or some other type of cereal that will dissolve in the rain in the valley to represent your glacier.  Push your hand down the middle of the glacier to represent glacial flow and then build sand moraines at the end of the glacier (terminus).

Discussion: Some glaciers flow down the sides of mountains and help to carve and widen valleys.  Glaciers also deposit sand, gravel, and boulders at its terminus.

Sand mountain and Weetbix glacier

Sand mountain and Weetbix glacier.

6. SANDPIT II (Grade 4-12)

Materials: Mud, sand, gravel, cobbles, Lego people, miniature house model, twigs for trees, large clear plastic tote, paper labels (read below)

Goals: Build a glacial landscape model and have students describe how the landscape looks in glaciated areas.

Experiment: Show students diagrams of glacial landscapes, maybe some photographs, then go outside and demonstrate a ‘model’ scaled version of a landscape.  Use the materials and even twigs for trees, cobbles for erratics, Lego people for people.  These human scales give students an idea of the scale of glacial landforms.  The relationship of the landform to the glacier front is also important (depending on your detailed goals: Know the difference between a moraine and an esker, for example).

I would probably represent the glacier with a large clear plastic tote (upside down).  If possible, have a hose running underneath it (subglacial melt water stream) with some water coming out from the end of the glacier.  Tell the students what the tote and hose represent, then take some gravel, sand, and mud and build a ridge against the front edge of the glacier.  Say, “Imagine this glacier extends to the north and to the east and west.  This ‘front’ or terminus is where ice is melting.  When the ice melts, rocks and sand melt out of the front and fall down into a pile on the ground, they may create a moraine, which is a ridge of unsorted (small mud particles to large boulders) sediment that marks the extent of the glacier.”  You can continue to build an esker, kettle pond, flutes, drop a few erratics, whatever you like, explaining how each landform is created as you create it.

Now unleash the students to work independently or in groups to design a glacial landscape (for 10-20 minutes).  Hand out labels with the words ‘moraine’, ‘esker’, ‘kettle pond’, ‘erratic’, and have the students set them next to the features. Talk with the students and ensure they know and can explain the context and formation of these features.

Discussion: Gather as a group and visit each display and have the creator explain the scene.  If possible, take a fieldtrip to a glacial landscape so they can see the actual size of an esker / large erratic / moraine (it makes a huge difference for them to actually see these features).


Materials: Large paper chart and colored markers.

Goals: If you live in an area with winter snow, have the students keep a journal of snow observations for a month or two.  This exercise enhances observations of the students’ surroundings, makes them more comfortable with adjectives, and promotes the connection between everyday weather and long-term changes in snow pack.

Experiment: Tell the class they will make observations of the snow outside for the next month or two (you can do this 1-5 times per week) as part of science class.  Take a piece of large chart paper and make two columns.  Write OBSERVATIONS on the left side and WEATHER on the right side.

  • Observations: Choose one or two students to go to the window and describe what they see, better yet, ask them after recess.  Adjectives like white, fluffy, sticky, dirty, cold, wet, icy, slippery, crunchy, squeaky, slushy, warm, cold, windy are all excellent!
  • Weather: Write temperatures in red when they are above freezing and blue for below freezing.  Add the weather symbols (sun, clouds, snow, rain) to help students see how the weather changed.

Discussion: How does the snow pack change as the weather changes?  One thing I like to point out is how dirty the snow banks become in spring, all the dirt melts out of the snow, just like on many of the debris-covered glaciers.


Materials: Snow, containers (we used coffee cans),

Goals: Observe and describe the changes over time of snow melting into water evaporating into the air.  This experiment demonstrates the basics of phase change and a bit of the water cycle.

Experiment: Give each student a container (if they are older students, have them calculate the volume of the container, either by measurements and mathematics or by filling it with water and measuring the volume of water with graduated cylinders) and have the students fill the container with snow.  Feel free to specify whether they should pack the container or just scoop some snow.  Also, it might be best to think about what type of snow you want to collect; fluffy snow will lead to a fast experiment (melts fast, low volume, evaporates fast) whereas wet snow could take a while to melt and evaporate.  Bring the containers inside and set them on the counter, each labelled with the student’s name.  Have the students write down in a journal what is inside the container (the container is full of cold, white snow).  Make another observation an hour or two later, is the snow lower?  Wetter? Bluer? Totally melted?  Have them also note the temperature in the room.  Once the snow has melted into water, have them measure the amount of water.  Keep an eye on the container, check it once per day until the water has evaporated.

Discussion: Why was there more snow than water?  Why did the snow melt? What happened to the water? What happens to the snow outside when it melts?  Where does the water go?  You can go as in depth as you like with this topic.


Materials: Maps of the world and of glacierized regions, examples of cold weather gear (hat, gloves, sleeping bag, insulated pants), examples of camp food, images of people living in remote glacierized areas, reasons why scientists go to these places

Goals: Students plan an expedition to a remote glacierized area of the world for scientific research.  Each group (or individual) has a specific task and they need to report their preparations to the class at the end.  Activity can take about 30 minutes.  First, set the research goal: Understand how polar bears eat, study how fast glaciers in Svalbard are moving, measure changes in glacier size since the last ice age.  Each of these goals will help you focus on where you need to go and what equipment you need to bring.  It also motivates people, knowing they have a specific goal in mind.

Experiment: Assign each student or group of students to a topic:

  • Location and purpose (give them maps and ask them to pick our location and what we will research)
  • Transportation and communication (how will we get to the site and who will pick us up? Logistical support?)
  • Food (think about how many people are going and for how long, calculate the number of meals)
  • Clothing, lodging, and safety (What do we need to bring for clothing, and for emergencies: If our pick up doesn’t arrive)
  • Scientific equipment (collaborate with the ‘purpose’ group and think about some tools you might need to bring with you)

Talk a bit about scientists who work on glaciers and why, tell them that now is their turn to plan an expedition.  Once the students are assigned to a topic, give them time to brainstorm and talk with each other.  Write the location on the board once the first group decides so other groups can plan accordingly.  Encourage collaboration between topic groups while they continue making lists of gear/food/tools etc.  Give them about 10-15 minutes to brainstorm while instructor(s) walk around and answer any questions or just overhear their ideas).

Discussion: When the brainstorming time is up, have each group present their ideas and encourage them to use the props that are available.  You can choose whether the listening students can ask questions to the ‘experts’ or contribute ideas.  Add your thoughts at the end for other things we didn’t specifically ask for (bathroom carry out, sanitation, stove, journal, book, personal gear).


2. MAKE A GLACIER (Homeschool / after school, all ages)

Materials: Water, sand and gravel, and a container.

Goals: Visualize how rocks can be incorporated into a glacier.


  1. Pour cold water over some ice cubes in a small, plastic dish and allow it to freeze over night.
  2. Pour a centimeter of water on the top of the ice block and some sand and gravel (imagine rock avalanche) and allow that to freeze.  Repeat as many times as you like to form layers.
  3. Cover the base of a new container with sand. Pop the ‘glacier’ out of the small plastic container and place it onto the new container and freeze.

Talk about how glaciers form, how rocks can be incorporated (rock fall from above or freezing rocks onto the base of the glacier from the sides/below), and why there are layers in ice (new snow falls on the surface and is compacted over time).

Discussion: Make observations of what you can see, can you see layers?  Can you only see the layers because of the sand or is there a difference between older ice and newer ice?  What would happen to the rocks if you let the cube melt (think about till)?


Materials: Physical maps of the world, images of glaciers.

Goals: Students will be able to identify climates and properties that lead to positive or negative glacier mass balance.

Experiment:  Tell the students to imagine they are made of ice (pretend they are a glacier).  The only way for them to survive is by eating snow. The Sun and heat are their enemies that make them smaller.

  1. Where would they choose to live? If you have access to Google Earth, have them find a glacier where they would live.
    • polar regions
    • middle latitudes, medium altitudes
    • high altitude in the tropics
  2. How often/much would they eat?
    • polar ice sheets and glaciers in the subtropics are in very dry environments, it snows either infrequently or in very small amounts, but rarely melts because of the very cold temperatures
    • glaciers in the middle latitudes, like New Zealand, Patagonia, Norway, receive large amounts of snow in the winter
  3. How might they avoid the Sun?
    • shade of tall peaks/steep cliffs
    • live in cloudy locations
    • the more snow you eat, the more sunlight you reflect back into space

Discussion: Where are some of the largest mountain glaciers (not ice sheets) in the world? (Alaska, Patagonia, Himalayas).  How does this relate to the temperature and amount of snowfall?  Glaciers need both cool temperatures and precipitation to survive, and it is the balance between how much mass is gained and lost.  Adding mass can be increased in steep, mountainous areas where avalanches occur and decreased in exposed areas where wind might blow the snow away.  Loosing mass is a combination of temperature, rain, sunlight, the darkness of the surface of the glacier, and if the glacier is calving (breaking off) into the ocean or a lake.

Other Sites with Glacier Activities

Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears (Elementary)

UOregon – Glaciers, Climate, and Society

If you have questions / suggestions / resources, make a comment and I will get back to you!

2 responses to “Glacier Activities

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