Glaciers and sea level and play dough

Not so long ago, me and my colleague Wolfgang were invited to tell a couple of students at the Naturparkschule in Längenfeld about glaciers. How do they form and behave? How do they react to a changing climate and how do they affect people near and far? Those are only some of the questions we wanted to discuss with the students. As usual, we did not want to bore them with a 1.5 hour long powerpoint presentation but tried to engage them using a couple of hands-on experiments.

I drew their attention to the role of glaciers (and ice sheets) in a changing sea level. It’s always interesting to see how people react when I tell them that their beloved glaciers in the European Alps are but a drop in the ocean compared to what the huge Arctic glaciers, not to speak of the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, have in store. But numbers are quickly forgotten so I tried to find a better way of visualizing the different amounts of ice stored in the different parts of the world. And when it comes to that, play dough is my friend! (And it’s easy to produce at home in various amounts and colours). So, I divided the students in two groups, provided them with a ball of play dough and asked them to scatter it on a map of the world according to how much ice they think there is. Here’s the result:


Photo: Patrizia Plattner – Naturpark Ötztal

I have to admit, I was almost a bit disappointed to see that they correctly allocated most of the ice to the ice sheets. So clever they are! One group buried large parts of North
America under ice though, and Europe got its fair share as well. They all seemed still pretty surprised when I demonstrated the actual proportions:


Relative amount of ice stored in Antarctica, Greenland and glaciers and ice caps (from left to right)

Though little amounts of ice are stored in glaciers compared to the ice sheets, they still have been one of the main contributors to sea level rise during the last centuries. However, the glaciers in the Alps are but a tiny fraction (less than 1%) of the small ball that represents the glaciers. Literally just a drop in the ocean.

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