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Teaching Notes

In this Section

Grade Level

This activity can be used for middle and high school students.

Learning Goals

After completing this unit, users will be able to:

  • Search for, request, and download climate data for the Lake Champlain region
  • Manipulate data in a spreadsheet to produce graphs
  • Compare multiple sets of time series data, including with linear regression models
  • Analyze graphs to interpret trends in temperature and its effect on ice formation
  • Analyze the effects of future climate change on the region using predictive global climate models


Lake Champlain is a major source of tourism, recreation, and ecosystem services for residents of New York, Vermont, and Quebec, Canada. The lake provides services to residents and tourists year-round, with boating, fishing, and swimming during the summer, and ice fishing and ice skating during the winter. Ice fishing shacks are commonly seen on the lake during the winter season; however, it has been observed that the lake has not been freezing as completely in the last several years. Should this trend continue, some of the services the lake provides to residents and tourists during the winter may become unavailable or unusable.

In this unit, students will explore the variations in surface air temperature in the Lake Champlain basin, determine the extent to which the lake freezes currently, link air temperature changes with changes in ice formation, and predict how ice formation on the lake will be impacted by climate change trends in the future.

Key Concepts and Vocabulary

Lake Closing: A lake is considered “closed” when it is fully covered by ice. A lake closing date is the date at which the lake becomes fully covered with ice, and a year when the lake did not close means that ice did not fully cover the surface of the lake (some open water remained exposed).

Julian Date: The number of days between a given date and January 1st, for example the Julian date of February 1st is 32.

Background Information

Lake Champlain is a freshwater lake located over an area that encompasses Vermont, New York, and the Canadian Province of Quebec. This lake provides drinking water to approximately 200,000 people and attracts $3.8 billion in tourism every year. It is also the home to over 81 fish species, 300 bird species, and 541,00 people.1,2

Lake Champlain

Water quality and management of invasive species are problems currently being monitored in the Lake Champlain Basin. With the effects of climate change currently occurring, more problems will arise. Changes in precipitation and temperature throughout the upcoming years will force humans and other species in the area to adapt.

Two changes that have been observed over the last several decades are the dates that the lake “closes,” or freezes over, and the number of years when it does not close at all (never freezes completely). Stager et al.3 report that earlier ice-out dates (date when the last remaining ice leaves the lake) are commonly reported in the region, but the dates of lake freeze-up in the Champlain Basin vicinity are changing much more rapidly. For example, freeze-up at Mirror Lake in Lake Placid, NY now comes 12 days later than it did a century ago, but spring ice-out is only two days earlier. Lake Champlain freezes roughly two weeks later than it did during the early 1800s and about nine days later on average than in 1900. In the thirty seven year period between 1970 and 2007, it did not freeze completely nearly 50% of the years. Ice cover on lakes is important in terms of controlling water temperature and, therefore, it ultimately affects the lake’s suitability as a habitat for native species. Ice and snow cover reflects solar heat, keeping it from entering a lake.3

The two primary resources for understanding Lake Champlain and the extent of the expected changes are the Lake Champlain Basin Program, which is administered by several U.S. and Canadian federal and state/province agencies, and the Nature Conservancy.

About MODIS 
      1. Students will access and review weather station data for Burlington VT.  There are two options:
      1. The U.S. federal agencies NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) use satellites to “take pictures” of the earth to help understand weather and climate. The MODIS instruments aboard the Terra and Aqua satellites were used to visualize Lake Champlain ice and are made available on NOAA’s web site for Burlington VT some of the recent images are compiled in an Adobe pdf file for easier access. Students will review these images and answer several questions.
      1. The dates that ice coverage on Lake Champlain has closed are provided by NOAA.  These data have been compiled into a spreadsheet for your use. Using these data, students will answer several questions.
      1. The Northeast Climate data site ( provides predictions for high and low carbon dioxide emissions (a tutorial is available to guide the student through this web site). Students will use the Northeast Climate Data site to explore predicted changes in temperature and to infer changes in ice coverage. The models include several potential scenarios for the future.  The students will examine the worst case high greenhouse gas emission scenario (A1) and the lower emissions scenario (B1) to evaluate the range of predictions for our future climate and answer several questions.
      • ·       Northeast Climate Data
        • Historical and predicted values for temperature and many climate indicators
        • Results of Northeast regional climate change models for A1 (worst case) and B1 (GHG mitigation) scenarios available for download into ASCII files (and summarized in the attached MS Excel workbook)
        • ·       Lake Champlain Climate Wizard
          • o   A graphical representation of climate change focused on the Lake Champlain basin, with temperature units available in Fahrenheit
      • Data from the United States Historical Climate Network (USHCN) Burlington, Vermont weather station which has already been compiled into an MS Excel spreadsheet
      • Alternatively, the students can access these data readily from the NASA GISS web tool that provides a easy graphical interface and data download capabilities. A tutorial is available to help students navigate this tool. The students should download the dataset and save it as an Excel file.  They will need to use the winter seasonal average temperatures or the monthly data for the winter months.
    • Present and Historical Data

      Predictive Tools and Data

      Instructional Strategies

      General Approach

      This module uses monthly average temperatures at a weather station in Burlington, Vermont, and historical dates of lake closing. The students review temperature data to see how the climate has changed over the 20th century, especially during winter months that are critical to ice formation on the lake. The students also review the dates that the lake closed in winters past, or if the lake closed at all, and correlate the frequency of lake non-closings with winter temperature data. Depending on students’ quantitative skills, they can be expected to use some basic MS Excel functions and create graphs to illustrate changes.

      It may be advantageous to have students work in small groups; students less familiar with the software could be teamed with more experienced computer users.


      Anticipatory Set Students should have some familiarity with general concept of climate change before beginning.  This module will help students understand the abstract notion that a change of a few degrees of temperature can have an impact on ecological systems.  Discussions of lakes, winter recreation on lakes and any familiarity with Lake Champlain in particular can help to provide some context for the unit.  Having students ask any older people they know, who enjoy outdoor winter recreation, what they have noticed about ice formation and duration changes over their lifetimes could provide additional anecdotal evidence of the consequences of climate change.  A student worksheet is available to guide the students through this project.


      The data can be graphed to evaluate historical changes in temperature from 1900 to the present. The students will then review the data present and generate graphs to answer several questions.

      Students should submit their work in the student worksheet included with this module.

      Closure Review the student findings and discuss the limitations in this type of analysis.  Identify other climate changes that they can expect to occur (e.g., other winter sports affected in the New York area) and what we might do t adapt to these changes. Discuss how their results might affect their attitudes towards the reality and consequences of climate change.

      Learning Contexts

      This module is particularly appropriate for an earth science class, especially in conjunction with a unit on weather or water bodies.  The data manipulation and generation of bar graphs or scatter plots with linear regression models are good extensions to math classes.

      Science Standards

      National Core Science Standards will be added when finalized.


      A standard laboratory report rubric can be used to assess the student reports.

      Other Resources

      Lake Champlain Data File – Lake_Champlain_Data_File.xlsx

      Student Worksheet

      Tutorial – Excel basics

      Tutorial – NASA GISS Surface temperature analysis web-based data access tool

      Tutorial – Using the Northeast Climate Data Website to access model prediction of our future climate

      Satellite images of Lake Champlain ice, winter 2011