K-12 Outreach

We conduct a wide array of outreach activities ranging from engaging scholars through science journals for young school students (e.g. participation in the Investi-gator) through to direct in classroom experiments and lectures.

Experimental Watershed to Examine Permafrost Thaw (Grades 6-7)

Watersheds represent an area of land in which all of the water that falls in it and drains off of it goes into the same place (i.e. the outflow). We all live in watersheds and the goal of this experiment is to teach kids what happens as a permafrost underlain watershed warms.

As ice wedges thaw in Siberia, mounds of soil remain.

Figure 1. As ice wedges thaw in Siberia, thermokarst mounds of soil (baydzherakhs) remain.

Materials Needed:

  • Plastic container (size can vary but we recommend clear plastic)
  • Brown modeling clay
  • Artificial water resin kit (e.g. Quick Water)
  • Sand and small pebbles
  • Brown and green spray paints
  • Hand drill
  • Tape
  • Cold Tea
  • Small heater


Permafrost landscapes. Photo by Rob Spencer.

Figure 2. Permafrost watershed model landscapes.

1. When permafrost thaws it can leave behind a unique landscape as the ice wedges have gone away (Figure 1) with only remnant soil left behind. Using the brown clay recreate this landscape as show in Figure 2.
2. To make the landscape look more realistic add sand and small pebbles to the clay and then spray paint it brown. This should now look like the models shown in Figure 2.
3. Place an object about ½” in height under one end of the model watershed so it is angled (see Figure 2). At the opposite end to the object lifting the model drill a small hole in the center of the watershed directly above the clay – this is your outflow.
4. Let the clay harden for at least 24-48 hours.
5. Place a piece of tape over the outflow hole. Now take the artificial water resin kit and add a layer of this over the clay and let set for at least 24 hours (or the minimum time recommended on the product used).
6. Make sure the outflow hole is not filled with resin, if necessary drill the hole again to clear it of the resin.
7. Now take cold tea (the darker brown in color the better) and gently pour it on top of the model landscape. Fill the plastic container until about ½” from the top. Place the model watershed with the tea in it flat into a freezer and leave until frozen solid.
8. You now have a model permafrost landscape. Features can be added on the surface in as much detail or simplicity as you like (e.g. model trees, shrubs, etc.). We recommend spray painting the surface ice green as a minimum to make it clear that this is the surface you walk on.
9. When thawing the permafrost model watershed, again place an object about ½” in height under the opposite end to the outflow.

Figure 3. Timelapse video of permafrost watershed model thawing: 3.5 hours in 38 seconds…

10. As the watershed thaws you can explain a number of phenomenon including the change in the surface landscape (particularly apparent as model trees collapse), the loss of ice wedges and the development of the remaining soil features, and the brown water (tea) running out of the watershed carrying carbon derived from the thawing terrestrial organic material (Figure 3).

Figure 4.  Rob demonstrates thawing to a middle school class.

Figure 4. Practical demonstration of permafrost thaw to a middle school class and overview of Arctic science.

11. If you make a number of models you can naturally warm them at different rates using small heaters to emphasize how warming impacts permafrost (Figure 4).