21 January 2019

How to make glaciers fun to learn about

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Carolyn Roberts

I’ve been studying terrestrial glaciers for a half dozen years now, and Spoiler Alert: they are melting! While seeing the demise of the cryosphere unfold before my eyes, I started to pursue more and more outreach opportunities to help “get the word out” to the public. Last September, my artist-turned-geologist friend, Jeremy Stock, asked for help developing an afterschool art program for 4th-6th graders at a local school. A big motivation for us was to develop a way to teach children about glaciers that was informative and engaging. How do you explain glaciers to children? They take tens of thousands of years to form, move very slowly** and are far away (excluding the famed ‘Snowpocalypse’ of 2014)!

During our first planning session, I confessed my fascination with the Pour Painting craze that was sweeping across the internet, and we came up with the idea to simulate glaciers using acrylic paint. A month later, Jeremy and his dad built a wooden ramp with two tributary ramps that could transport paint downhill and onto a canvas in ≤45 minutes.

Schematic of the wooden ramp, which simulates a terrestrial valley-glacier system. The main ramp was fixed at a 15-degree incline, with the two tributary ramps fixed at slightly greater inclines.

Our general procedure was to place the ramp over a drop cloth in a well-ventilated room, and to apply a base coat of white acrylic paint to the ramp and tributaries. Then we would ask the elementary students to add acrylic paint to the heads of the main and tributary ramps, simulating winter snowfall. We suggested they alternate between different colors to create a “banding” effect to help us track the flow’s evolution.

In practice, the students quickly figured out which ramp made the paint travel the fastest (i.e. steepest-sloping ramp), and they systematically hunted down the runniest (lowest-viscosity) paint we had pre-mixed. They were enthralled watching the runny paint flow down the ramp, mixing with other colors along the way, and causing a myriad of intricate flow features to form. The students would then shout out their observations as the flow evolved, prompting several lines of inquiry about real-life glaciers.

Jeremy pointing out intricate flow features as they evolved down-slope.

After carefully removing the ramp from the wet canvass, we let the canvass dry in a storage room for several days. Here was the result: 

The dried “paint glacier” from Dec. 2017.


The results speak for themselves.

-Carolyn Roberts is a graduate student at the University at Buffalo, where she is the Vice President of the graduate geology club and co-chair of the outreach committee. Learn more about the project here

**surging glaciers and collapsing glaciers are an exception! Collapsing glaciers are lethal.