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Investigating climate change – sea level rise

How will melting sea ice affect biomes? Photo © Christopher Michel


The 2014 National Curriculum explicitly states that pupils should be able to describe and understand key aspects of physical geography including climate zones, biomes and vegetation belts. Life in the world’s biomes is reliant on being adapted to cope with the climate and landscape. When considering how plants or animals might adapt to climate change, it is essential to have a clear understanding of how a change in global temperature could change landscapes around the world. The activity here links geography and science to investigate how sea level could rise and how it would impact on different places.

Starting points

Climate change is often in the news, and many pupils may well have some familiarity with the term. They are also likely to have some prior learning about hot and cold places around the world from the early years of school. Discussion about their ideas of what is meant by climate change and global warming, and revisiting the polar regions on a globe or using Google Earth or similar, will provide a sound basis on which to develop their understanding.

An important notion to grasp is the difference between the Arctic, which is a large area of ice floating in the sea, and the Antarctic, which is a huge landmass (and is one of the world’s seven continents, Antarctica) covered in a thick layer of ice. This difference is key to how each has a very distinct and separate role in global warming and its effects.

As the Arctic ice is already floating in the sea, its volume already contributes to the sea level: therefore, the water released by melting of this ice will not raise sea levels. The role the large area of Arctic ice plays is to reflect the rays from the sun. If the ice was not there to form a reflective barrier, the sun would shine instead onto the surface of the ocean, so warming the water. As water warms, it expands, so it is in this way the sea level would rise from the melting of the Arctic ice.

As the ice at the Antarctic is held on land, it is not already part of the volume of seawater; therefore, were this ice to melt, it would add to the amount of water in the sea and thus raise the sea level.

The activity below will explore this through a practical experiment and enable pupils to begin to envisage the effects and how this would impact on life.

Key ideas

  • Seven-eighths of the world’s polar ice is located at the Antarctic.
  • The Antarctic is the coldest place on Earth. The average temperature there is -49°C.
  • The average winter temperature in the Arctic is -34°C. This rises to around 6°C during the summer.
  • Polar bears are found only in the Arctic, not in the Antarctic; conversely, penguins are found in the Antarctic but not the Arctic.
  • No land animals are able to live in the Antarctic; only birds, or sea animals that have adapted to the cold, such as penguins and seals, can spend any time on land.
  • For every 2.5cm the sea level rises, 150-250cm of beach becomes covered by the sea.
  • Rising sea level is a danger to people, plants and animals that live near the ocean. The effects could range from frequent flooding and the associated contamination of land, crops and drinking water from the salt, to being completely submerged.
  • The dying out of coral reefs, and the effects of this loss of food and habitat on a multitude of sea creatures, is attributed in large part to a warming of sea temperature.



In addition to conflicting views on climate change there are also many misconceptions too; common misconceptions include thinking that that global warming will give us in the UK a nicer climate more like that which we experience on our holidays, or that it will only affect polar bears and other animals that live on the ice, and not the rest of the world.

Understanding the different biomes is essential in order to explore the implications of sea level rise for them, and this requires any teacher to be primed with technical knowledge in advance of having to respond to pupils’ questions. The GA has published concise, accurate background information on climate zones, biomes and vegetation belts. Visit here for further details.

Activity idea: Exploring sea level rise

In pairs or small groups, pupils will need:

  • a copy of Rising levels worksheet
  • three fairly flat stones of differing height
  • a small watertight tray or other shallow container large enough to contain the three stones
  • at least four ice cubes (this will depend on the size of the trays and stones – enough volume of ice to make a clear difference to the water level when melted)
  • water
  • two different coloured waterproof marker pens
  • a ruler
  • a sunny spot or other means of warming the ice, such as a radiator
  • Miniature plastic houses, such as Monopoly hotels (optional).


First, pupils will explore the notion of sea level. They place the three stones into their container and carefully pour in enough water into the container to come almost but not quite to the top of the lowest stone. They will see from this that the water is an even height throughout the tray, but that the differing height of the stones means the water covers a different amount of their surface: the tallest stone will have the most land above sea level. They should use their ruler to measure the depth of the water level in the container and note it on their Rising levels worksheet.

Next, they should carefully lift out each stone and draw with one marker colour the water line onto the stone before replacing it.

To create the ice sheet, pupils need to balance ice cubes on one of the stones. This represents the water stored as ice on land, such as at the Antarctic and at Greenland. The process of the ice melting will take time, but can be speeded up with the use of a gentle heat source, which can also be linked to rising global temperatures.

If using the plastic houses to represent habitats, pupils should place them on the two other stones.

While the ice has time to start melting, pupils can complete the first section on their worksheet and hypothesise in their groups on what will happen at each of the stones when the ice has all melted.

When all the ice has melted, they measure the depth of the water level and record this on their worksheets. Marking the water level on the stones will be trickier this time, as the stone that had the ice on it may still be wet from the melting ice! If so, pupils can try to mark as close as possible to the water level while the stone is still in place. They use the second colour marker to show the new water level on the stones.

Pupils should observe all three stones and consider the effects of the rising water level on each: What has happened to the amount of land above the water level? Has the water level completely submerged the lowest stone? What would the effects be on the people, animals and plants that live at each place? What might people or animals living at each place need to do if the sea level rose?

Higher-achieving pupils could explore the effect of melting sea ice (as found in the Arctic) on sea level. Using a clear jar or plastic cup, they should add water and ice cubes, marking the water level on the side of the container. When the ice has all melted, they should mark the level a second time and compare the two levels. How does this compare with the effects of the melting ice sheets experiment?

Related resources

In the Know: Latitude, longitude, night and day

SuperSchemes: Investigating Climate and Biomes

Primary Geography articles

GA (2018) Primary Geography Summer 2018 issue 96: Focus on weather and climate

Ballin, B. (2008) ‘’, Primary Geography, 67, pp. 34-5.

Bird, S. and Cooper, P. (2006) ‘Microclimate enquiry and fieldwork’, Primary Geography, 59, pp. 26-7.

Heller, J., McManners, J. and Owens, P. (2006) ‘Sustainability in Action: Leading by example on beating climate change’, Primary Geography, 61, pp. 28-9.

Kempster, E. and Witt, S. (2009) ‘Make my future sustainable! Part 1: Children’s ideas on climate change’, Primary Geography, 70, pp. 16-18.

Whitehouse, A. (2008) ‘Weather Around the World’, Primary Geography, 65, pp. 37-8.


This Teaching Resource was written by the Geographical Association.

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