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        The Effects of Global Warming in Alaska

        In this media-rich lesson, students learn how global warming is changing the Alaskan environment and examine the consequences of climate change on the region's human and wildlife inhabitants.

        Lesson Summary


        The effects of global warming in Alaska are significant, varied, and interrelated. They include melting permafrost, receding glaciers, eroding coasts, disappearing sea ice, and mounting problems for native species, such as caribou, sea otters, salmon, and polar bears. Because the Arctic is a bellwether of climate change, all of us, no matter where we live, should be concerned about what is happening there. The consequences of global warming are most immediate in the lives of those who live in the Arctic, including Alaska Native peoples, so it's their actions that may show how communities can learn to sustain traditional ways of life and ecosystems amidst the changing climate. The first step for students in solving the problem of global warming is to develop a greater understanding of the complex changes at hand.

        The lesson begins with a video that demonstrates the unsettling influence a changing climate is having on Alaska Native peoples and cultures. Following a brief class discussion, students break into small groups and begin inquiry activities intended to enhance understanding of three relevant themes: permafrost and coastal erosion, subsistence living, and contaminants. Students conclude by sharing their understanding of this complex subject. They will do this by delivering presentations to a fictitious audience composed of experts or officials.


        • Learn about the effects of global warming in Alaska and how everything is interconnected (Earth as a system)
        • Explain why Arctic and sub-Arctic regions are particularly vulnerable to changes in temperature
        • Examine how global warming is changing habitats and affecting ecosystems and wildlife populations
        • Understand how Alaska Native peoples rely on permafrost and are being affected by changes to it
        • Understand how declining wildlife affect Alaska Native peoples
        • Learn about different global warming mitigation and adaptation strategies

        Grade Level: 6–12

        Suggested Time

        • Two to three class periods

        Media Resources

        Several of the following may be used to support the lesson and activities. Viewing all of the media is not required.

        For class viewing

        For small group viewing (by topic)


        Subsistence living:


        Arctic haze (optional topic):

        For extension activity (optional):


        For optional topic:

        Before the Lesson

        • Arrange computers with Internet access so students can work in small groups.
        • Gather all materials for the small-group activities.
        • Prepare a preapproved list of persons whom students may call for assistance with their activities.
        • Review the Glossary of Alaska Native and Western Science Terms PDF Document. You may also want to make the glossary available to students in Step 1 below. Encourage them to refer back to the glossary as needed throughout the lesson.

        The Lesson

        Part I: The Effects of Global Warming in Alaska

        1. The effects of global warming in Alaska extend to the physical environment and the living things it supports, as well as to the spiritual core of Alaska Native peoples. To begin this lesson, show students the An Unpredictable Environment QuickTime Video. As a class, discuss some of the consequences and concerns expressed in the video. Ask students to share some ways in which changes in climate are affecting their own community—whether they live in Alaska or elsewhere.

        Note: You may want to distribute the Glossary of Alaska Native and Western Science Terms PDF Document to students and encourage them to refer to it as needed.

        2. Break students into small groups and have each group focus on one of the following themes that relate to global warming in Alaska: (a) permafrost and coastal erosion, (b) subsistence living, or (c) contaminants. An optional fourth theme—Arctic haze—can also be assigned. These themes and the suggested resources will be the basis for inquiry activities. Depending on how many students there are in the class, you can assign the same theme to more than one group.

        3. Print out the Effects of Global Warming Activity PDF Document and distribute the appropriate pages to each group. Have the groups view the resources and complete the suggested activities for their selected theme. Inform them that they will be expected to give a class presentation or demonstration of what they learned at the conclusion of the lesson.

        Using visuals, such as posters, to help explain their topics, presenting groups will be asked to make their case to a hypothetical audience of experts or government officials that a problem exists and suggest a plan of action for the audience to take. On completion of each presentation, the class will determine whether the case was made strongly enough to convince them of both the need for change and that the suggested action plan is appropriate. Evaluations will be made on both the scientific understanding of the topic and how well cultural concerns are represented. Presenting groups should be prepared to answer questions from their audience and their teacher.

        Note: Because safety is always a concern, if students will be conducting interviews for the optional Arctic Haze Activity, be aware of the interviews that students are setting up outside of school. Make sure that the subjects are well known to the students. Have students go in pairs (or with an adult family member or friend) to any interviews outside of the classroom. You may also consider having an Elder or a panel of Elders come into the classroom.

        Part II: Optional: Extension Activity

        4. Encourage students to take some kind of action with respect to ameliorating the effects of global warming. Ideas include advocating change by their local government, restoring habitat, using energy more efficiently and conservatively, recycling, and organizing a hazardous waste collection day in their community. You may choose to devote additional class time to the Take Action for Nature and Your Community Student Activity . Another idea is to visit the S.O.S. Project—Save Our Shishmaref Web site to learn how Alaska Native students are engaging the public to recognize the plight of their island village, which is disappearing due to coastal erosion, and determine ways to support their cause.

        Check for Understanding

        Students will demonstrate their understanding of the lesson's objectives through their presentations. However, you may choose to lead a final class discussion on global warming in Alaska. You can use their responses to the following questions to assess their understanding:

        1. What is meant by the term "system" in science? What are some changes that have been observed in Alaska that will have repercussions throughout global systems?
        2. Discuss several contributing factors to global warming.
        3. Name at least one physical, economic, and social consequence of the loss of permafrost.
        4. What are some similarities and differences in the way in which the Alaska Native peoples and Western scientists view the natural world?
        5. Why do you think people might disagree about whether a coastal area affected by an oil spill is clean and safe or not?
        6. Will the effects of global warming impact Alaska Native peoples, and if so, how?


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