Seasonal Changes Are Impacted by Climate Change

For us humans, especially in urban settings, the seasons come and go with regularity and cause relatively painless changes in our lives — longer days, shorter days, setting clocks forward or backward as we just did. But for most other animal species seasonal changes do not go unnoticed.  Further, when climate change impacts patterns of seasonal change, animals can be affected.

For example, pregnant caribou depend on particular plants to nourish them while they nurse their calves. The spring calving season is short and the window for peak plant nourishment coincides with that short season. However, these plants are emerging or germinating earlier in the season, in response to warmer temperatures, reaching their peak before calving occurs. Thus, nursing caribou are receiving less nourishment, calves are suffering, and mortality rates are increasing, as reported by ScienceDaily. Researchers believe this is just one example of the impact of climate change that will be documented repeatedly in the near future

caribouCaribou are cued to move to new grazing patches by increasing day length. The plants, however, are cued to emerge or germinate by increasing temperature. This causes a “trophic-mismatch.” If the trend continues, caribou will not survive unless they can find a substitute for their nourishment needs. This may be possible in one of two ways. One is an additional plant species, useful to caribou, becomes established in the ecosystem made possible by the longer growing season. The second way caribou could thrive is if the caribou alter their migration patterns to better align calving with plants at their peak nutrition. Doing so would be a case of the caribou population shifting its      range.

According to a second ScienceDaily article, “One of the main predicted effects of climate change is a forced shift in species’ distribution range.” This comment was made in reference to a plankton scientists have decided was able to change its range to further north in the Atlantic after the last warming trend in climate 18,000 years ago. They attribute this ability to a lot of genetic variability within the species and large populations. This, they say, is good news since it indicates the species can react and adapt appropriately in order to survive and avoid extinction. It is also a cause for optimism since plankton is the base of the food chain.

Conversely then, small, less variable populations are at risk of not adapting to and surviving climate change. What if anything can or should be done?

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

The National Science Education Standards in life science states students should gain understanding in (1) structure and function in living systems, (2) regulation and behavior, and (3) diversity and adaptations of organisms. Climate change affords opportunities to touch on those areas as well as topics in Science and Society, and Earth Science concepts in climate.

Ask students what caribou are, where they live and how they behave. Or direct students to do their own research. This Natureworks site provides a succinct reference for students.  Most will probably know caribou migrate and live in Alaska, but students may not know they also live in Greenland. Many will say caribou are reindeer. Though they are related, they are different. Reindeer are domesticated and live in northern Asia actually.

Students may know caribou migrate, but they may not be fully aware of the adaptations the caribou have, enabling the thousands of miles of migration accomplished each year. Ask students what cues caribou to migrate north in the spring: increasing day length or increasing temperatures? Since temperatures vary, it is adaptive perhaps that caribou respond instead to increasing day length, which is rather constant in its annual pattern.

Now focus on the plants of the tundra. What signals plants it’s time to emerge? Warming temperatures rather than light. After all, an underground root system or a buried seed cannot sense light. To track average temperatures from 1995-2003, students can access Excel files of the data from the Arctic Long Term Ecological Site. In pairs or groups of three, students can find tundra temperature data for a specific year and then share. They can have the program calculate the average temperature each year for the month of June or the first week in June. Graph the data points. What is the pattern?

Tundra plants are low to the ground and small. Caribou have to do a lot of grazing to meet their needs. Turn student attention to the calving and nursing period. Calves nurse for about one month. Nursing caribou need lots of nutrition during that period. What if calves were born one week after plants had reached their maximum? How might this impact the herd over time? Remind students of the two different cues plant and caribou respond to: light and temperature. How might the plant diversity be impacted by a warming trend?

Share the plankton story with students. In sum, two things can happen in response to climate change: adapt or go extinct. Life on the planet survived the last warming trend; thus it may survive this one too. However, human contributions to this warming trend were not present 18,000 years ago. It remains to be seen what difference that makes.

Here are additional related resources from the Middle School Portal 2: Science and the Polar Regions and The Reason for the Seasons.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at

This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published November 5, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/23/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

Connecting Classrooms, Sharing Real Data

This article first appeared in Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears online magazine April 1, 2008. The article has been modified to include middle school math and science examples. All versions of this article are licensed under a Creative Commons License.


Collaborative and real-time data projects engage students in collecting and sharing local data; communicating with other students around the world; using and analyzing “pooled” data from web-based databases; and accessing unique, primary source information. Even though there is no substitute for direct experiences and active investigation, extending the realm of inquiry through electronic communications can greatly enrich and extend an inquiry approach to science and math teaching.

These kinds of projects are highly motivating to students because they bring classrooms together from across the country and globe in shared learning experiences. Students are required to go beyond their own experience, to share with others, and to consider alternative points of view. Not only do students share data, they share perspectives and cultures. What could be more exciting?

Some wonderful collaborative and real-time data projects have been available online for years. To get a feel for the breadth of available projects, try a few searches in the Internet Projects Registry from the Global School Network (GSN) and in the KIDPROJ index of projects. You will find lists of projects from around the world that cover many disciplines. You can search for projects specific to your curriculum and students’ age levels and even design, post, and moderate a project that your class and others can join. You can also subscribe to both web sites’ listservs to get e-mail updates on new projects when they are listed.

Featured Projects

K-12: Track Spring’s Journey North
Teachers and students in K-12 classrooms are invited to participate in Journey North’s annual global study of wildlife migration and seasonal change. A free Internet-based citizen science project, Journey North enables students in 11,000 schools to watch the wave of spring as it unfolds. Students monitor migration patterns of monarch butterflies, hummingbirds, whooping cranes, and other animals; the blooming of plants; and changing sunlight, temperatures, and other signs of spring. Students share their local observations with classmates across North America and beyond, and look for patterns on real-time maps. As they put local observations into a global context – and connect with field scientists – participants are better prepared to explore how climate and other factors affect living things.

Each Journey North study features many entry points and resources that address learning standards: Journey North for Kids reading booklets and lessons, stunning photos and video clips, weekly migration updates, interactive maps, instructional units, and compelling migration stories.

Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education: Collaborative Projects

Noon Day Project
The goal of the Noon Day Project is to have students measure the circumference of the earth using a method that was first used by Eratosthenes over 2000 years ago. Students at various sites around the world will measure shadows cast by a meter stick and compare their results. From this data students will be able to calculate the circumference of the earth.

International Boiling Point Project
The purpose of this project is to discover which factor in the experiment (room temperature, elevation, volume of water, or heating device) has the greatest influence on boiling point.

Down the Drain
How much water is used in homes everyday? Would you be surprised to learn that according to the USGS the average American uses between 80-100 gallons (approx. 300 – 375 liters) of water per day? Do people in other parts of the world use more or less water than Americans? This collaborative project helps students find out the answers to these questions. By collecting data on water usage from people around the world students will be able to see how their water use compares to others and determine what they might do to use less water.

Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education: Real Time Data Projects

Wonderful World of Weather
By using hands-on activities and real-time data investigations, students can develop a basic understanding of how weather can be described in measurable quantities, such as temperature, wind, and precipitation. The real-time data lessons also address topics such as climate, cloud classification, and severe storms. Students use the Weather Underground web site to collect and analyze weather from around the world. Three sets of activities are included: Introductory Activities, Real-Time Data Activities, and Language Arts Activities. A Literature Connection page with selected prose and poetry with a weather or season theme is a part of the site.

Musical Plates
Earthquakes, a scientific and physical phenomenon, affect our lives in many ways. In this project, students use Real-Time earthquake and volcano data from the Internet to explore the relationship between earthquakes, plate tectonics, and volcanoes.

The Stowaway Adventure
This multidisciplinary Internet-based learning experience has been designed to expose students to real world problem solving through unique uses of instructional technologies. In particular, students will use real time data from the Internet to track a real ship at sea, determine its destination and predict when it will arrive. In addition, they will have the opportunity to monitor the weather conditions at sea and predict when rough weather might impact on the ship’s arrival time. The focus is on math concepts and navigation.

The GLOBE Program
The GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) Program brings together students, teachers, and scientists from around the world to learn more about the environment. Students use established protocols to collect environmental data locally. The data are shared using a global database to further the understanding of Earth as a system. For a school or classroom to submit data for any of the projects, at least one teacher must be trained in the GLOBE science measurement protocols and education activities by attending a GLOBE Teacher Workshop.

However, data from around the world has been archived since 1995 and can be accessed and downloaded by country, state, or region, or specific school by anyone. The Teacher’s Guide, which contains hundreds of lessons, protocols, and field guides, is searchable by grade band and concept.

ePals offers K-12 students and teachers around the world a free and safe environment for building and exchanging knowledge based on protected connectivity tools, evidence-based curricula and authentic, collaborative learning experiences. The ePals Global Learning Community is the largest online community of K-12 learners, enabling more than half a million educators and millions of students across 200 countries and territories to safely connect, exchange ideas, and work together. ePals projects cover the topics of global warming, habitats, maps and others.

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at Post updated 4/14/2012.

Polar Bears and Climate Change

Did you know that polar bears are at high risk of population decline and future extinction in our warming world? Dr. Steven Amstrup, a Research Wildlife Biologist with the United States Geological Survey, discussed the status of the iconic marine mammal in the lecture, “Polar Bear: Climate Change Sentinel.” The lecture was part of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Conservation Lecture Series. Dr. Amstrup works at the Alaska Science Center in Anchorage and has conducted research on polar bears for the past 28 years. He was part of the research group that prepared reports used in the listing of the polar bear as a threatened species.

Polar bears are the apex predator of the Arctic. They are closely tied to the sea ice, depending on it for mate selection, breeding, caring for young, and most importantly, hunting ringed and bearded seals. Pregnant females come on land in the fall and den for the entire winter to give birth and care for their cubs. The other bears continue to hunt on the sea-ice year round.

Studies have shown that polar bears prefer medium to thick sea ice over the shallower waters of the continental shelf. However, as Arctic sea ice has retreated in past years, bears are forced to travel out further (and over much deeper and less productive water) to hunt from the ice edge. In the West Hudson Bay area, females are coming ashore up to three weeks earlier and thus losing valuable time to feed before denning. In both cases this leads to decreased weight and a decreased survival rate of cubs and older individuals. Years of sea ice decline correlate with population decline in the Hudson Bay and Beaufort Sea areas, trends which are most likely consistent with other polar bear populations around the world.

Based on this data, researchers projected that as a result of global warming and sea ice decline, polar bear populations have a very high risk of extinction within the next century. One particular population in the Canadian archipelago may be able to survive through the end of the century, as the ice there is still thick and covering shallow water. Ice thinning in that area may open up increased hunting opportunities and support a larger population. However, if warming trends persist, this population will also eventually be at risk.

When asked how individuals could help polar bears, Amstrup spoke of immediate changes to reduce our carbon footprint. While large scale action by governments and corporations is certainly necessary, it is worthwhile to remember that changing our individual habits (and encouraging others to do the same) can make a difference.

A study of polar bears and their response to climate change aligns with the Life Science and the Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standards of the National Science Education Standards.

The entire National Science Education Standards document can be read online or downloaded for free from the National Academies Press web site. Find science content standards in Chapter 6.


Polar Bears International
PBI is nonprofit organization dedicated to the worldwide conservation of the polar bear. Find background information and information about the bear’s listing as a threatened species.

 The Polar Bear Tracker
Follow the movements of polar bears throughout the Arctic. Use the real-time data to explore how global warming is affecting the bears.

Tracking Polar Bears
In this interactive activity adapted from the USGS Alaska Science Center, investigate the migration patterns of polar bears.

Polar Bears Change Diet
This radio broadcast from 2001 explains how polar bears have adjusted their diet due to the climate warming around Hudson Bay, Canada. The ringed seals that polar bears normally eat have been harder for polar bears to get to, due to disappearing ice. This has forced polar bears to begin eating harbor seals and bearded seals. The clip is 4 minutes and 15 seconds in length.

Polar Bears and Climate Change
This video from the World Wildlife Fund addresses the primary threat to polar bears in the Arctic today: global warming. Scientists monitor the effects of climate change on the large predator’s activities and range, study the bears’ physical condition, and explore why the melting of glaciers and reduction of sea ice in the Arctic region may ultimately have dire consequences for the polar bears.

Bearly Any Ice
This game is similar to tag that simulates the prey and predator relationship between polar bears and ringed seals. It demonstrates the drastic impact of global warming by linking the amount of sea ice and length of season of sea ice to the survival of the polar bear.

Science and the Polar Regions
Background information, lessons, resources, and standards alignment for a study of the polar regions.

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What
would you like to know more about? What questions have your
students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers
by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest
posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what
you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate
your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2
publications. You can also email us at Post
updated 12/07/2011.

Using Real Data in Environmental Science Classes

Students are naturally curious about the world they live in. What better way to satisfy this curiosity than by giving them hands-on opportunities to collect data and find answers to their questions? These resources provide opportunities for students to collect data and to present and analyze their findings. These skills are an important part of the Science as Inquiry strand in the National Science Education Standards.

Down the Drain: How Much Water Do You Use?
In this Internet-based collaborative project, students collect data from their classmates and from members of their own households to determine the average amount of water used by one person in a day. They can share that information with other classes online and compare the average amount of water used per person per day in other parts of the country and the world. The project goes beyond merely collecting data to considering some real questions on wasted water.

Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE)
Students participate in this environmental science program by collecting local data, such as air temperature, cloud cover, and soil moisture content, and posting that data on the web site. The growing body of data is available to both scientists and students. Although only GLOBE-trained teachers can have their students post data on the web site, anyone can view or download the data.

Earth Exploration Toolbook: Using GLOBE Data to Study the Earth System
This site guides students through the process of locating and graphing web-based environmental data that has been collected in the GLOBE program. Basic concepts in Earth science are explored as students investigate a specific case study. The GLOBE Graphing Tool is used to superimpose four different environmental data sets as a single graph to show otherwise hidden relationships. Seasonal changes in soil moisture are highlighted, as are the concepts of reservoirs, the flow or flux of moisture between reservoirs, and the role of solar energy as a driver of this flux.

Journey North: A Global Study of Wildlife Migration and Seasonal Change
In this online project, students share their field observations with other students across North America. They track the coming of spring through the migration patterns of monarch butterflies, bald eagles, robins, hummingbirds, whooping cranes, and other birds and mammals; the budding of plants; changing sunlight; and other natural events.

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at Post updated 4/19/2012.