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ACTIVITY: Simulating Sea Level Rise

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices:

NGSS Crosscutting Concepts:

NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas:

The activity below draws from the content in the page Understanding Sea Level Rise.


When ice floating in a glass of water melts, the water level stays the same (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Ice melting in a glass. What do you notice about the water level?
Image by Sebastian Stewart.


What happens when ice on Earth melts?

Why are scientists worried that melting glacier ice will cause sea level to rise? 

Guiding Questions:

  1. How does the atmosphere interact with the hydrosphere to influence sea level?
  2. How do glaciers and icebergs differ in contributing to sea level?
  3. How are climate change and sea level linked?
  4. Why should we be worried about warming melting glaciers and/or icebergs?


Investigate the difference between melting of icebergs and melting of glaciers on land and explore the relative effects on sea level rise.



  1. Follow your worksheet to set up your model and conduct your trials. Read the background information below before begining the activity:


    <p>Fig. 2a. An iceberg in the arctic floats freely in the water.</p>

    An iceberg is a large piece of ice that is floating freely in the water (Fig. 2a).  Icebergs form when chunks of ice break off of glaciers, ice shelves, or larger icebergs.

    <p>Fig. 2b. The Quelccaya Ice Cap glacier in Peru is the second largest glaciated area in the tropics.</p>

    glacier is a large piece of ice on top of land (Fig. 2b). Glacier ice forms by the accumulation and compaction of snow. Glaciers typically occur on mountains or near the poles. 

  2. Mold your clay into an island and stick it to the bottom of your container. If you are using rocks, place them in the container. Make sure the island has a flat surface for your ice cubes (glaciers) to balance on.
  3. Tape your sea level gauge (ruler) to the inside of the container so that you can measure the height of the water (sea level).
  4. Add water to the container. Make the top of your island is above the water level!
  5. Make some predictions based on your model:
  1. <p>Fig. 3. How will the water level change as the ice melts?</p>Imagine that you put an ice cube directly in the water. What does the ice represent?
  2. What will happen to the water level as the ice cube melts?
  3. Imagine that you put an ice cube on top of your
    island. What does the ice on top of the island
  4. What will happen to the water level as the ice on
    top of your island melts?
  1. Conduct your trials.

Trial #1: Icebergs

  1. Place ice cubes in the water near your island. These ice cubes represent icebergs. Note the number of ice cubes used.
  2. Measure and record the water level BEFORE the icebergs melt in the data table below.
  3. Measure and record the water level AFTER the icebergs melt in the data table below.
  4. Calculate the difference in water level before and after.

Trial # 2: Glaciers

  1. ​Reset your ocean in the same container, or use a separate container.
  2. Add the same number of cubes as above, but this time place them on the island to represent glaciers.
  3. Measure and record the water level BEFORE the glacier melts in the data table below.
  4. Measure and record the water level AFTER the glacier melts in the data table below.
  5. Calculate the difference in water level before and after.
  1. Record the data in your data table:
  Placement of ice cubes Starting height of water level (mm) Height of water after ice melts (mm) Change in water level (mm)

Trail#1 (Iceberg)

Trial #2 (Glacier)        

Activity Questions:

  1. What do each of your supply items represent in your model? (tub, clay (or large rock), ice cubes, water, ruler)
  2. How was sea level change different between the iceberg and the glacier trial?
  3. How does this experiment model sea level rise in the real world?
  4. What is the atmosphere?
  5. What is the hydrosphere?
  6. How does warming of the Earth's atmoshpere affect the hydrosphere?
  7. What causes sea level rise?
  8. How do you think rising sea level will affect people where you live?
  9. Bonus! Follow the link below to do your own research to help Dr. Humuhumunukunuku Apuaʻa investigate the future impact of climate on Pacific Island environments and resources!

    Plea from Director Kahuna of the Pacific Islanders Council on Climate Change!

    Investigating Impacts of Projected Climate Change on Hawaiʻi

  10. Bonus! Test your newfound knowledge to see if you can spot the error on the newspaper story in the Further Investigations below:
Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.