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«EEK! -OLOGY: WHAT HAPPENS IF PERMAFROST THAWS? Overview: In this lesson students explore the effects of thawing permafrost on plant, animal and human ...»

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In this lesson students explore the effects of thawing permafrost on plant, animal and human inhabitants of the

Arctic, set up a hypothetical temperature model and predict possible changes in the Arctic landscape in the 21st



The student will:

• give a presentation about the relationship between permafrost and ecology; and • graph hypothetical temperature data to simulate climate modeling.

Targeted Alaska Grade Level Expectations:

Science [9]SA1.1 The student demonstrates an understanding of the processes of science by asking questions, predicting, observing, describing, measuring, classifying, making generalizations, inferring, and communicating.

[10-11]SA1.1 The student demonstrates an understanding of the processes of science by asking questions, predicting, observing, describing, measuring, classifying, making generalizations, analyzing data, developing models, inferring, and communicating.

[10]SA2.1 The student demonstrates an understanding of the attitudes and approaches to scientific inquiry by examining methodology and conclusions to identify bias and determining if evidence logically supports the conclusions.

[10]SG3.1 The student demonstrates an understanding that scientific knowledge is ongoing and subject to change by using experimental or observational data to evaluate a hypothesis.


albedo - a measurement of how much solar energy is reflected off a surface boreal forest – characterized by coniferous forests climate model - uses quantitative methods to simulate the interactions of the atmosphere, oceans, land surface, and ice; used for a variety of purposes from study of the dynamics of the climate system to projections of future climate cyrosphere - the frozen portions of Earth, including sea ice, snow, glaciers and permafrost ecology – the scientific study of the relationships between living things and their environments; a system of such relationships fluctuation – to shift back and forth uncertainly or to ebb and flow in waves habitat – the area or natural environment in which an animal or plant normally lives, such as a desert, coral reef, or freshwater lake; often home to many different organisms horizontal axis – the horizontal line at the bottom of a graph; also called the x-axis or abscissa hypothesis – a proposed answer to a causal question; testable using a how or why question hypothetical – describes a situation that is made up in order to draw out and test a similar situation’s logical or empirical consequences simulate – to give or assume the appearance of something statistics/statistical – a branch of mathematics dealing with the collection, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of masses of numerical data trendline – an upward or downward line on a chart indicating movement from the average over time vertical axis – the vertical line on the side (usually left) of a graph; also called the y-axis or ordinate

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Whole Picture:

A flight over the state of Alaska reveals millions of lakes, ponds, rivers and streams—home to abundant wildlife, beautiful tundra and boreal forests. Each unique habitat is home to certain species of animals. For the Athabascan people who rely on a subsistence lifestyle for survival, each of these habitats represents a specific resource. Subsistence activities are based on knowing the potential harvest opportunity at any point in time under any set of conditions. When those conditions become unpredictable, such as occurs with a dramatic shift in climate, subsistence practices are at risk.

One of the primary factors affecting habitats is water. While Alaska seems to have an abundance of water, in reality, the amount of yearly precipitation is so low that much of the state is considered a desert. The layer of permafrost that lies just beneath the surface acts as a barrier, holding the water above. If the permafrost were to thaw, lakes and ponds would disappear, the water seeping into the ground.

The Arctic landscape rests on a permafrost foundation. In Alaska, the land north of the Brooks Range is underlain with continuous permafrost. South of the range, the permafrost becomes discontinuous, then sporadic, but nearly all of Alaska has some permafrost. Despite the harsh conditions, permafrost ground supports a variety of plant and animal life and is home to many people, all of which have adapted to life on frozen ground.

What happens if permafrost starts to thaw? Large-scale changes in vegetation, habitat and animal life would occur. Wetlands that currently support abundant waterfowl each summer would no longer provide sanctuary. Tundra that provides abundant food and safe breeding grounds for caribou would disappear.

Communities would be faced with either repairing collapsing infrastructure or moving. Traditional ways of life would be impacted.

But, is permafrost thawing? Scientists point to increased air temperatures in the Arctic and their effect on permafrost. Climate changes could affect the foundation of the Arctic landscape. Climate models are challenging and rely on complex factors. Many people wonder if increased air temperatures are symptoms of global warming or are part of natural climate variations.


• Deck of cards (one per small group) • Colored pencils (set of 6, one per group) • Graph paper, 4 lines per inch (several sheet per small group) *Note: you can print your own graph paper for free from: http://incompetech.com/graphpaper/.

• MULTIMEDIA: “Planning for Change” • MULTIMEDIA: “Alaska Scenarios and Permafrost” • STUDENT WORKSHEET: “Eek!-ology: What Happens if Permafrost Thaws?” • STUDENT LAB: “Graphing Climate Variability”

Activity Preparation:

1. This lesson will likely take two class periods to complete. Review the lesson ahead to decide the best way to manage the time needed. Access the MULTIMEDIA files “Planning for Change” and “Alaska Scenarios and Permafrost” and determine the best way to present the files to the class. (See Activity Procedure 5.)

2. Bookmark the National Snow and Ice Data Center website on student computers: http://nsidc.org/ frozenground/index.html. Review the website to become familiar with the layout and content in order to help students during the lesson, especially with formulating relevant quiz questions.

Activity Procedure:

1. Ask students if they have seen any evidence of permafrost thaw. They may have seen ground slumps, riverbank erosion, tilted buildings or cracks and heaves in roads. Review the extent of continuous and

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discontinuous permafrost in Alaska, if needed. (See Maps section of the UNITE US website at www.

uniteusforclimate.org.) Explain the potential for permafrost thaw and that such a thaw would affect the ecology of the Arctic landscape (see Whole Picture).

2. Divide students into small groups. There are four topics that students will study (1.Climate and Frozen Ground, Ecology, 2. Frozen Ground and Plants, 3. Ecology, Frozen Ground and 4. Animals, and People and Frozen Ground), then present to classmates. If there is a need for more than four groups, choose a topic (or topics) that can be repeated. Hand out one section of STUDENT WORKSHEET: “Eek!-ology: What Happens if Permafrost Thaws?” to each group. Explain that groups will prepare a brief presentation (two to four minutes) that teaches fellow classmates about their assigned topic. Give groups a minute to decide among themselves which presentation type they want to do, then direct them to materials as needed.

3. Students will access the National Snow and Ice Data Center website on student computers: http://nsidc.

org/frozenground/index.html in order to complete the assignment. Allow students adequate time to research and develop a brief presentation based on the worksheet. Depending on students, it could take 30 to 45 minutes. Emphasize that students must develop three quiz questions that will be addressed in their presentation. All the quiz questions will be used later to test classmates. Students must use one of each of the following question formats: an essay, a fill-in-the-blank, and a multiple choice. Students must also provide an answer key.

NOTE: Use the questions to create a review quiz for students to take the next day. Be sure to add a question or two based on the MULTIMEDIA files “Planning for Change” and “Alaska Scenarios and Permafrost,” viewed later in the lesson.

4. Once students have completed their presentation, allow time for them to present. Based on your review of the website and the copy of the questions handed in by each group, ask questions to ensure that content was sufficiently covered.

5. Explain that scientists can’t predict with certainty what is going to happen to Earth’s climate in the future, however climate models use past records to paint a picture of what is likely to come. The MULTIMEDIA files “Planning for Change” and “Alaska Scenarios and Permafrost” describe the way some climate models work.

Have students access the multimedia on student computers or, if possible, display the files on a multimedia projector and go through them as a class activity.

6. Divide students into small groups. Tell students they will now make a mock climate model using playing cards that will serve as “temperature data.” Hand out STUDENT LAB: “Graphing Climate Variability,” as well as the materials needed to complete the activity. Explain the process to students then allow time for them to complete the lab. Circulate to ensure understanding.

7. Remind students that the lesson focus has been on how climate change might affect permafrost. Have a review discussion based on student presentations, the climate models viewed in the multimedia and the student lab.

8. Hand out the quiz with student questions and ask students to complete.

Ideas for Filming:

Students will complete a short film about permafrost for the final project associated with this UNITE US unit.

Each lesson leading to the final project contains ideas about what students might film as they compile clips.

Students are not limited to the list and are encouraged to use their imagination and creativity when filming.

 Since this lesson deals with the plant, animal and human ecologies of an area almost anything has potential as a film source. Filming plants and trees in the area and animal life would be appropriate, especially those plants that grow on permafrost ground or animals that are specifically adapted to life on permafrost.

 Filming of community infrastructure like water tanks, community buildings or sewer lines would also be appropriate.

 With permission, interviews with those who have seen changes in the landscape occur in their lifetimes would also be appropriate.

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Extension Idea:

Students can view the movie “A Changing Arctic Landscape” in the resources section of the UNITE US website.

(www.uniteusforclimate.org). After viewing the movie, students can interview community members who have seen changes in the weather/climate in their life times. Interviews can take the form of those modeled in the movie. With permission, the interview can be filmed and shown to the class.


STUDENT WORKSHEET: Eek! -ology: What Happens if Permafrost Thaws?

Answers will vary depending on questions created by student. Students must provide an answer key.

STUDENT LAB: Graphing Climate Variability Answers will vary. Students should answer all of the lab questions and finish with a minimum of three graphs.

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GROUP 1 – Climate and Frozen Ground Names: ________________________________________________________________________________________

Directions: Create a brief presentation about Climate and Frozen Ground based on information found at the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s All About Frozen Ground section (http://nsidc.org/frozenground/). The purpose of the presentation is to teach classmates about climate and frozen ground.

Choose a presentation format. Check one below:

� A six-slide Microsoft PowerPoint presentation � A poster presentation (using chart paper) � A four-minute skit (includes all group members) � A four-minute speech (divide among group members) � Other (with teacher approval) _________________________

The presentation must include:

1. An introduction that gives an overview of the topic.

2. A presentation that highlights at least four important points about the effects of climate change on permafrost.

3. Visual aids: pictures, if possible, and/or graphics, drawings, etc.

4. A “what if” component: What could happen to permafrost if the climate continues to warm? What does that mean for the Arctic?

5. A conclusion that includes an opportunity for classmates to ask questions.

In addition in the space below you must prepare three quiz questions that classmates will be able to answer after your presentation. Write these down and hand them in to your teacher before you present.

Begin by visiting the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s All About Frozen Ground section (http://nsidc.org/ frozenground/). Using the menu on the left find the section titled Climate and Frozen Ground.

GROUP 1 – Climate and Frozen Ground Names: ________________________________________________________________________________________

Detach and give to your teacher prior to your presentation. Create one essay, one fill-in-the-blank, and one multiple-choice question. You must also provide an answer key.

Our three questions are:

1. _____________________________________________________________________________________________


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