Mapping a Personal Story of Environmental Change

Purpose: The goal of this assignment is threefold: 1) Reflect on the connection between social and ecological parts of the earth system that we observe in our own lives, 2) Gain experience with mapping change and using maps for sharing both data and personal stories of climate change, and 3) Provide a starting point for gauging our collective experience thinking about climate change.


Maps have special power to both visualize data, and serve as a starting point for telling a story. It is no surprise that many novels have maps on the first page. They are very valuable in science as well. For example, the map below visualizes the record breaking minimum sea ice extent in 2012 from data captured by satellite. The average minimum extent is shown by the yellow line. The map shows dramatic change that causes us to think about how climate change in the Arctic might affect the rest of the earth system.


Less sea ice means a greater area of darker, heat-absorbing water for the planet. It means less protection from storms and more erosion for coastal Arctic communities, and greater challenges for polar bears and walrus that depend on sea ice for habitat. It could also affect the Jet Stream- a band of high winds driven by atmospheric temperature gradients that typically guides weather systems in the Northern Hemisphere- which could cause more intense storms and flooding far away from the Arctic.

Maps can show us the connections between, geology, soils, vegetation and human cultures as shown in the maps of Alaska below. The vegetation in each ecoregion of Alaska is determined by the extent of frozen soil, called permafrost, in the area, and the cultures that have developed in each region have arisen based on the resources available. People, in turn, influence the vegetation and the permafrost by the way they use it, and indirectly through their influence on climate change.  This view of people and land as inseparably connected and influencing each other is known as the social-ecological system perspective.

Maps can also be used to show people’s personal observations of social-ecological change. They serve as a jumping off point for people to share their own stories of their relationship with the land and their ecological knowledge. The photos below show notes made on a map after interviewing elders about environmental changes they have observed and how their use of the land has changed through time.


 Assignment Instructions:

1. Read the background information above.

2. On a piece of paper, draw a map of a place you know really well. It could be anywhere that you have a strong connection with—your town, your house, your bedroom,you fish camp, your favorite beach, a place you take your dogs to run, the park you grew up playing in—someplace you know really well.

3. On the map, draw social and ecological changes that you have observed in that place. You can represent these in any way you want. Use arrows to label the changes you drew on your map with a few sentences so someone else would be able to understand it. Include as many changes as you can think of, but not so many that other people won’t be able to read your map.

4. Be as creative or as simple as you want. It doesn’t need to be professional quality!

The video below explains the assignment for visual and auditory learners and provides a few examples:

About this Learning Activity

  • Climate change influences our lives.


  • What changes have I observed in my own life that may be related to climate change?

NGSS themes addressed:

  • Practices- Developing models, communicating information
  • Cross-cutting concepts- Stability and change, Patterns, Cause and effect
  • Disciplinary core ideas- LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems; ESS2&3: Earth’s systems, Earth and Human Activity
Culturally-Responsive Curriculum Standards Addressed:
  • A. Integrity of cultural knowledge that students brings with them
  • E. Local knowledge and actions in a global context