GLACIER CLIMBING  What is glacier and how does one move?  Four Oregon teenagers climb to the summit of a glacier
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Begin the lesson with the following question: Where is most of the freshwater on Earth currently found-in rivers, lakes, or glacial ice?

Explain that glaciers not only are found in polar regions like Antarctica and Greenland, but mountain glaciers exist even at the equator. Glaciers can have an enormous effect on sea level around the world. Toward the end of the last ice age, 12,000 years ago, sea level was almost 300 feet lower than it is today. If global warming occurs, some scientists theorize that melting glaciers in the next century could cause a rise in the sea level worldwide.


Over the last 25,000 years glaciers have had an even greater effect on our global landscape than earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, or floods. But because they flow so slowly, they are often overlooked as a significant agent of change.

A glacier is a large mass of ice that acts like a river, flowing downhill under the influence of gravity. Glaciers are "born" at high elevations where snow builds up over many years without significant melting. In these "accumulation zones," snow at the bottom of the pile gets compacted by the weight of new snow above, causing it to turn into dense glacial ice. Once the depth of the ice reaches 20 to 30 meters (66 to 98 feet), there is enough pressure from above to cause the ice pack to slowly "creep" or flow downhill. As long as new snow is added at the top, a glacier will continue to move forward.

As the front of a flowing glacier moves downhill, it scours the land surface, picking up rock and soil and trapping it in the ice. If snow keeps falling and temperatures stay cold enough, glaciers will continue to move downhill, eventually reaching a point of dynamic equilibrium. Here, the rate of melting at the front of the glacier is exactly balanced by the flow rate of the glacier from the back. While it may look like the glacier has stopped, the flow of ice is continuous, so large piles of glacially derived sediment begin to build up at the foot of the glacier. When the glacier retreats, the deposits become terminal moraines. These telltale signs of past glacial action often reach several hundred meters in thickness.

In polar regions like Antarctica and Greenland, so much snow accumulates that individual glaciers flowing down valleys begin to merge together, forming large-scale continental ice sheets. In some cases, these massive glaciers are more than 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) thick and, while they may look static, they too are in continuous motion. 

Data seems to suggest that over the course of the last two decades, global warming may be causing glaciers all over the world to retreat. The fear is that large-scale melting of glaciers will create a devastating rise in sea level. Only time will tell if this is a long-term trend or simply a natural "blip" in the worldwide glacial cycle.


1. What is the current distribution of glaciers around the Earth? Are there any major trends where glaciers appear to be either growing or shrinking at abnormally high rates? What can changes in glacial distribution tell us about changes in climate?

 2. A retreating glacier can leave rich soil behind. What areas of the world benefited from this glacial activity?

GLACIER CLIMBING: Student Activity
Discover how a valley glacier flows by using a superthick, viscous fluid as you model glacier


 Because it takes an enormous amount of mass to make a real glacier creep downhill, scientists often rely on substitute materials to make a model of fluid flow in glaciers. In this activity, you'll make a highly viscous suspension of cornstarch and water to simulate a glacier, and track the way that it flows down a "valley."

Materials per group of four students

  • plastic shoe box
  • one 16-oz box of cornstarch
  • one to two cups of water
  • one 2-qt mixing bowl
  • 5 wooden toothpicks
  • 5Ð6 large pebbles
  • one 5" x 7" inch index card
  • pencil

  • 1. Mix the cornstarch and water together in the bowl to form a suspension with the consistency of toothpaste. (It should not be runny or wet.)

     2. Lay the pencil flat on the table and place one end of the shoe box on top of it to give the box a slight tilt. Begin pouring the cornstarch mixture into the box at the raised end and observe what happens.

     3. After the mixture has flowed through the entire box, scrape it up with your hand and pile it in the raised end of the box. Use the index cards to make a "dam" across the shoe box valley to hold the mixture back. Lay the five toothpicks across the front of the mixture so that they are one inch apart and parallel to each other. Remove the dam and observe the way the toothpicks move as the glacier flows.

     4. After you have tracked the flow of the glacier with the toothpicks, repeat the experiment, but this time place a few large pebbles on the bottom of the shoe box to make obstructions in the valley. Allow the glacier to flow again and observe what happens when it interacts with the obstructions.


     1. When the cornstarch mixture initially flowed through the box, what shape did the front take? How does this relate to valley glaciers? 

    2. When you released the mixture from behind the index card "dam," what pattern did the toothpick markers make? What do you think caused this?

     3. What happens to the flow of the glacier when it hits the obstructions in the valley? Do you notice anything different in the top of the glacier as it flows over the rocks?


    Brian Show Number: 1501


    Books and articles

    Hambrey, M. (1992) 
    New York: Cambridge University Press.

     Hostetler, S. (1997, Jan)
    Near to the edge of an ice sheet.
    Nature, p. 393Ð394.

     Kimber, R. (1993, May) 
    The glacier's gift. 
    Audubon, pp. 52Ð53.

     Lee, L. (1994, June)
    Summer's here: Chill out! 
    National Geographic World, pp. 10Ð14.

     Pfeiffenberger, J. (1997, April) 
    Ice age journey. 
    Earth, pp. 76Ð79.

     Walker, S. (1990) 
    Glaciers: Ice on the move.
    Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books.


    The World Glacier Monitoring Service
    Wilfried Haeberli and Martin Hoelzle
    Department of Geography
    University of Zurich
    Winterthurerstrasse 190
    CH-8057 Zurich, Switzerland
    /icd/icsi/ WGMS.html

    Web sites

    Alaska SAR Facility-Great Glacial Images

    USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory
    /Glaciers/ framework.html

     Whistler Networks-How to Make a Glacier

    Whistler Networks-What Is a Glacier?

    Try This:

    Although scientists have been monitoring the movement of glaciers for over 100 years, there is a renewed interest because of the fear that global warming may be causing a widespread melt-back. Does the data fit this model? Collect data on several different glaciers and chart their progress over the last 50 years. A good place to start is with the glaciers in Alaska or on Mt. Rainier in Washington State. Data can be obtained from the Internet (see resources) or from a regional U.S. Geological Survey Office.
    Try This:
    Make dirty ice cubes by mixing different amounts of dirt and debris in the water before freezing it. Identify which ice cube has the least mass and which has the greatest. Place these two ice cubes, plus a third whose mass is some where in between, on an inclined ramp and allow them to melt. What do you observe? How is this similar to what happens when a glacier melts?

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    Twin Cities Public Television

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