How to Measure the Speed of a Glacier



How glaciers in the polar regions respond to continued climate warming is of great concern. Changes in overall glacier velocities and calving dynamics have immediate impacts on sea level. Accurate predictions of how and when ice loss will occur are crucial to forecasting future environmental change.

This lesson results from experiences working in and around Kronebreen glacier in Svalbard, Norway during High Arctic Change, 2014. Along with viewing pictures and video of the glacier, students will model glacier behavior using physical models and simulations to attempt to answer, “How can we measure the speed of a glacier?” The lesson incorporates time-lapse photography of Kronebreen glacier produced by CRIOS (Calving Rates and Impact on Sea Level), a research collaboration project between the University Centre in Svalbard and the University of Edinburgh, School of GeoSciences.

Students plan and carry out an investigation into the best way to determine the velocity of their model glacier that recognizes the glacier dynamics exhibited by glaciers like Kronebreen.

Objectives/NGSS Performance Expectations

  • Students will know that Earth’s systems, being dynamic and interacting, cause feedback effects that can increase or decrease the original changes. (HS-ESS2-2). Using simulations, students will learn that a glacier’s velocity changes based on environmental factors.
  • Students will develop a model based on evidence to illustrate the relationships between systems or between components of a system. (HS-ESS2-3),(HS-ESS2-6). Students will develop a model glacier to investigate glacier dynamics.
  • Students will plan and conduct an investigation individually and collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, and in the design: decide on types, how much, and accuracy of data needed to produce reliable measurements and consider limitations on the precision of the data. Students will design ways to accurately measure the flow of their model glacier and compare it to designs used in the field.
  • Students will analyze data using mathematics in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims. (HS-ESS2-2). Students will calculate the velocity of their model glacier and compare with classmate’s measurements for accuracy.

Lesson Preparation

This lesson asks students to answer the question, “How can we measure the velocity of a glacier?” Prior knowledge of types of glaciers, glacier features and glacier dynamics is necessary before beginning the lesson. The PhET simulation needs to be downloaded on student computers from the PhET website.


  1. Students review background information about glaciers with a power point and are introduced to Kronebreen glacier in Svalbard, Norway, as a basis for investigation.
  2. Students make and work with flubber on inclined PVC half pipes to get comfortable with the behavior of materials that exhibit viscous flow. (Directions for making the flubber are on the student worksheet.) Through experimentation with the “model glacier”, students recognize that different areas of the flubber/model glacier move at different velocities. Students experiment with making the model glaciers flow at different rates. In groups, students brainstorm ways to measure the differential velocity of the model glacier.
  3. Students work with a PhET simulation to explore how changes to climate affect glacier velocity, thickness and length. Working with the simulation will further refine ideas about how to measure the model glacier’s velocity. The PhET simulation can be found at here.
  4. Students view three YouTube videos of time-lapse photography of Kronebreen glacier. The first video shows how a science team set up seven cameras to capture consecutive images of Kronebreen glacier over five months. The first video can be viewed as a class. The second video is the actual time-lapse photography retrieved from five cameras. Students view the second video using student computers at their own pace as they complete the second worksheet. The third video can also be viewed as a class. It shows recovery of the cameras and the science team’s reaction to the successful endeavor. In order, the three videos can be found at:
  1. The class forms teams based on various methods created to measure the velocity of flubber glaciers. The teams use their model glaciers and design methods to measure the velocities at different points. Students conduct their measurements, compare with other teams and present findings in a written report.


  • Depending on student design ideas, the lesson can be extended to incorporate time-lapse photography of the model glaciers or another local phenomenon.
  • Students can access satellite or Google Earth imagery as additional ways to visualize Kronebreen glacier.
  • Presentations of findings can be expanded to include oral or “science fair type” presentations.
  • A 2015 video documents continuing work by CRIOS. Students can continue to follow their scientific research.


CRIOS webpage
High Arctic Change 2014


Assessment occurs through evaluation of students’ written reports. A worksheet outlines the requirements of the report and addresses the student objectives. Alternatively, students may present their findings as a poster display or at a science fair.

Author / Credits

PolarTREC teacher, Peggy McNeal created this lesson based on her experience with High Arctic Change 2014. Peggy may be reached at peggy.mcneal [at]

File Attachments

Power Point: Introducing Kronebreen Glacier
Worksheet: Student Instructions- Final Written Report

Other Standards

Next Generation Science Standards Addressed

Disciplinary Core Ideas:
ESS2.C The Roles of Water in Earth’s Surface Processes. The planet’s dynamics are greatly influenced by water’s unique chemical and physical properties.

ESS2.D Weather and Climate. Global climate models are used to predict future changes, including changes influenced by human behavior and natural factors.

ESS3.D Global Climate Change. Global climate models used to predict changes continue to be improved, although discoveries about the global climate system are ongoing and continually needed.

Cross Cutting Concepts:
CCC2. Cause and effect: Events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. A major activity of science is investigating and explaining causal relationships and the mechanisms by which they are mediated. Such mechanisms can then be tested across given contexts and used to predict and explain events in new contexts.

CCC 4. Systems and system models. Defining the system under study—specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system—provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that are applicable throughout science and engineering.

CCC 7. Stability and change. For natural and built systems alike, conditions of stability and determinants of rates of change or evolution of a system are critical elements of study.

Science and Engineering Practices:
SEP1 Asking questions and defining problems
SEP2 Developing and Using Models
SEP3 Planning and carrying out investigations
SEP5 Using Mathematical and Computational Thinking
SEP6 Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
SEP8 Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Resource Details

Author(s): Peggy McNeal
Related Expeditions:


Power point presentation that introduces Kronebreen Glacier
Copies of four student worksheets
Student computers for viewing video and working with PhET simulation
planes with edges (PVC pipes split longitudinally work well)
school glue
borax solution (1/4 C borax per 1 quart water)
small cups
measuring spoon sets
craft sticks
20 ml graduated cylinders
metric rulers



Completion time

About a week

Grade Level

High school and Up


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Earth System, Structure, and Processes | Water Cycle, Weather, and Climate | Snow and Ice Science | Climate Change