Navigating Ocean Ice
Sea Levels

Model the impact of changing global temperatures on melting ice and sea levels.

About the Activity

Most likely you’ve heard grownups in your life mention the term “climate change.” You may have heard about it in school, on the news, or even at home.

Climate change is a shift in typical weather patterns in a given area over a long term period of time. Catastrophic floods from severe storms or long dry seasons leading to drought and major forest fires are just a couple examples of climate change. One of the larger concerns stemming from climate change is its effect on melting ice caps. This experiment will show how melting ice on both land and sea can lead to climate change, in particular the global sea level.

Grades: 4 - 8
Topic: Climate change, environmental science
Estimated Time: 30 minutes active, 1-2 hour waiting

Brought to you by University West Virginia Extension/4-H and USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Large iceberg

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Gather the following ingredients and supplies for this activity.

  • Two shallow plastic containers
  • Modeling clay (oil-based so it will not dissolve in water)
  • Ice
  • Water
  • Permanent Marker
  • Paper
  • Pen/pencil
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Activity Steps
Follow these simple steps to create your sea ice and land ice.

  1. Label one container "Sea Ice" and the other container as "Land Ice." Did you know? Sea level is the general position or height of the earth’s water compared to the land. When the sea level becomes higher, we say the sea level is rising. The global sea level has risen 8 inches since 1880.
  2. Split your modeling clay into two equal sizes. Use each piece to build a land mass – one for each of the containers. Each land mass should be approximately the same size as the other. Each should be large enough to hold a couple pieces of ice and take up approximately half of the container. Place one land mass in each container. Did you know? Due to pollution and warming temperatures, the global sea level is predicted to raise at least 12 inches by the year 2100.
  1. Next, pour water into the containers to represent the sea. The water should reach approximately half the height of the landmass. Make sure the water does not cover the landmasses. Did you know? Rising seawater levels will continue to contribute to increased levels of flooding. Scientists predict parts of southern Florida and Louisiana will be underwater by the year 2100.
  2. You have two containers. One represents sea ice and the other represents land ice. Decide which container will hold your sea ice and add 6-8 ice cubes to the water. Once you add the ice, mark your sea level – or height of the water – on the side of the plastic container with your marker. Did you know? Sea level is measured by either tide gauge stations or satellite altimeters.
      • Tide gauge stations directly measure the height of sea water.
      • Satellite altimeters use microwave beams to measure the distance from the satellite to the sea.
  1. Add the same number of ice cubes to the second container’s landmass by setting them on top of the modeling clay. Make sure to mark your sea level on the side of the plastic container with your marker. Did you know? Antarctica, at the southern pole, has the largest mass of land ice in the world. The Arctic, at the northern pole, has the largest mass of sea ice in the world.
  2. Take your piece of paper and write down your predictions to the following questions:
      • What do you think will happen to the ice at room temperature?
      • When the ice begins to melt, how will it impact, or change, the water level in the two containers?

Did you know? Melting ice impacts more than just sea levels. It also impacts habitats, which is another word for home. For example, a polar bear’s habitat is on top of the land ice in the North Pole.

  1. Watch what happens as the ice melts in each container. How do your observations compare to your prediction? An observation is something we notice by using our senses, such as our eyesight or touch. Did you know? Antarctic ice loss nearly quadrupled from 2001 to 2016.

Bonus Activity (Optional)
The melting ice and rising sea level have far-reaching effects on habitats from the icy poles to the oceans themselves. Choose an animal that climate change impacts and take a few moments to research how their habitat has been affected. Your internet browser can help you search. The World Wildlife Fund has excellent information on animals and climate change. Their website has an entire list of species and habitats impacted by rising temperatures.

Two ice cubes

Reflection Questions
Bonus questions to inspire wonder:

  1. Which ice is the bigger concern for rising sea levels?
  2. How does the melting ice impact the local habitat for animals?
  3. How do rising sea levels impact coastal lands?
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Investigate and Explore
Take what you've learned to the next level to learn more and explore the possibilities.

As global temperatures rise, land ice melts which adds to the total water in the oceans. But there is another issue that impacts sea level. Water expands as it gets warmer, meaning it takes up more space. This also leads to rising sea levels.

Take a look at your two containers from the earlier experiment. Do you notice any changes in how your land masses look?

Workers measuring sea level

Career Connections

Paleoclimatologists, or sea level scientists, look at current and historical data to characterize environments based on changes in sea level. These scientists look at NASA satellite data, as well as past data, to predict future sea levels. They help us understand how changing sea levels will impact the earth.

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No endorsement of these supporters’ products or services is granted or implied by 4-H. This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, AFRI - Education and Workforce Development project 2021-67037-33376.

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