Glacial Retreat: Quantifying Changes in Glacier Cover Over Time

Contributor: My NASA Data

Type Category: Instructional Materials

Types: Lesson/Lesson Plan

Note: This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.


Using paired satellite images of an Alaskan glacier, learners analyze changes in glacier cover over time. Learners map the area covered by the Bear Glacier in 1986 and 2002 on a clear transparency using the colored satellite images printed for them. The area is calculated and compared, and then contributed to the class data collection for averaging. Lesson requires approximately 50 minutes.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
Grade 12
Grade 11
Grade 10
Grade 9
High School


Access Restrictions
Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectation

HS-ESS3-5  Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.

Clarification Statement:

Examples of evidence, for both data and climate model outputs, are for climate changes (such as precipitation and temperature) and their associated impacts (such as on sea level, glacial ice volumes, or atmosphere and ocean composition).

Assessment Boundary:

Assessment is limited to one example of a climate change and its associated impacts.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation

This lesson provides geoscience data in the maps and evidence-based forecasting in the evaluation questions. Educators may need to design other writing prompts to encourage in-depth analysis such as “choose two sets of photos and explain how the changes seen are alike or different and how this provides evidence of change”. Additional examples of change in ice cover and glacier retreat should be shared, such as those found at Viewing the phenomenon resource, Melting Glaciers, reviewed at the NGSS@NSTA Hub, is recommended (

Science and Engineering Practice

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice

The satellite images provide examples learners can use directly for study and analysis. Learners can make observations and computations regarding area and percentage of ice cover. The same process could be applied to other images of glaciers worldwide to analyze systemic change in the cryosphere such as those available from

Disciplinary Core Idea

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea

Satellite data is a primary source of information about climate and climate change. This lesson demonstrates how satellite data is used to determine climate and climate change in locations that are difficult to access directly, or are very large. Learners may make predictions based on the observations and computations from these models, as scientists do. The data for this activity comes from Landsat, however there are many available sources such as NASA Earth Observatory, National Snow and Ice Data Center, or Learners should be encouraged to view additional examples. An introductory example without measurement may be viewed at

Crosscutting Concept

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept

Learners make observations and calculations based on images with a time span between them, allowing for measurements of the changes, as well as visual comparisons. An additional, similar lesson reviewed at the NGSS@NSTA Hub, may be found at, Area of Named Glaciers. Glaciers are only one example of climate changes that can be measured. Additional examples would be beneficial to learners, such as sea level rise. A variety are included in People and Climate Change, found at, reviewed at the NGSS@NSTA Hub.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The phenomenon of retreating glaciers is presented and applied in a way that provides evidence to aid learners in sense-making. Students work in pairs, which may increase engagement and understanding. The lesson does not begin with an opportunity for students to make initial observations and ask questions, but this could be done by the educator. The Science Practice of Analyzing and Interpreting Data is addressed by the use of images from satellite data. These images show the same location (Bear Glacier), with the change in the size of the glacier visibly evident. The images are used as students make measurements and calculate the area of the glacier at two points in time. The Disciplinary Core Idea of Global Climate Change, under Earth and Human Activity, is addressed by the consideration of changes in glaciers over time. The current impact is measurable. Learners are asked to predict possible future changes based on their calculations. The Cross-Cutting Concept of Stability and Change is addressed when learners collect data and calculate the area of the glacier that has melted over time. Self-evaluation of the learner’s method and accuracy is addressed in the questions included at the end of the lesson. This lesson would need to part of additional learning opportunities regarding glacial retreat and other evidence for a thorough understanding of climate change effects. If the educator needs a succinct lesson specifically relating to glacial retreat, then this lesson may fill that need.
  • Instructional Supports: Measurement and observations of glacial retreat is a relevant and authentic lesson, based on real-world events related to climate change. Learners share their data with the class as the data is used to calculate an average. This part of the lesson provides the opportunity for learners to share. Discussion of conclusions and significance of the data would need to be directed through analytical questions posed by the educator. Students could then respond to feedback. The lesson has a clearly identified progression, identified for the educator in the Teacher Resources. This document includes the original materials from the National Park Service, which has more resources and web links than the lesson plan shown on the My NASA Data website. This lesson is scientifically accurate and grade-level appropriate. Sharing learner results would help identify any quantitative calculation errors based on misunderstandings of the process. While not specifically addressed, this lesson has potential for differentiated instruction. Learners may be paired as the educator sees fit. Additional support is included for the calculations aspect of the task. Parts of the lesson could be modified for more or less learner independence. Prior learning related to calculating area of irregular-shaped objects in 2 dimensions should be addressed to identify any gaps in understanding. The process of calculating percentages should be reviewed with students prior to completing the portion of this lesson that is based on finding the percentage of change.
  • Monitoring Student Progress: Making sense of the phenomenon of retreating glaciers is accomplished through the use of images and analysis of the images and related data. A specific formative assessment is not identified, however the educator could check learner work as the lesson progresses. No scoring guidance is provided for the educator, however the structure of the lesson does not rely on exact calculations. The lesson includes summative evaluation questions which include an aspect of self-reflection for the learner. The lesson is unbiased and does not rely on specific vocabulary learners would need prior to conducting the process of gathering data and making observations. The educator should monitor student progress and ascertain that all learners understand the processes necessary for completing the lesson. Stopping at certain points to use whole-group instruction is recommended, as well as clarifying any learner questions before engaging in the actual task.
  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: No technological interaction is required for the lesson.