For those who prefer interacting and experimenting with things on your own, this Science Wednesday is for you! Ice Flows is a new educational computer game based on science (but with some elements of fiction to make the game fun to play) developed at the University of Exeter in the UK. It can be played online (http://www.iceflowsgame.com) or downloaded as an app called “Ice Flows” with the App store or Google Play store. It’s free!
Ice behaves like a fluid and flows due to gravity, hence the name for the game. When snow falls at the top of icesheets – like Antarctica and Greenland – it eventually gets compressed enough to turn to ice, then slowly flows downhill, towards the ocean. Ice gets lost at the edges through melting due to warm ocean water or breaking off in a process called “calving.”
When growth and loss is balanced, the ice sheet is in its “happy place” (equilibrium state). This game is based on a simple ice sheet model which represents how the ice flows and then how the flow is altered when changes are made to the surrounding environment, like increased snowfall or increased ocean water temperatures. Down in Antarctica, a small air temperature change doesn’t significantly impact the size of the ice sheet directly, due to the extremely cold temperatures at the interior. Rather, changes in ocean circulation play a bigger role, undercutting the ice at the edges of the icesheet. In Greenland, the air temperature is much warmer and can have a bigger impact on the ice sheet. Experiment with both regions – and enjoy the penguin and seal characters!