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Ocean Currents and Sea Surface Temperature

Joan Carter, NASA - My NASA Data Collection

In this classroom activity, students access sea surface temperature and wind speed data from a NASA site, plot and compare data, draw conclusions about surface current and sea surface temperature, and link their gained understanding to concerns about global climate change.

Activity takes one to two class periods. Computer access is necessary for students.

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Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Covering 70% of Earth's surface, the ocean exerts a major control on climate by dominating Earth's energy and water cycles. It has the capacity to absorb large amounts of solar energy. Heat and water vapor are redistributed globally through density-driven ocean currents and atmospheric circulation. Changes in ocean circulation caused by tectonic movements or large influxes of fresh water from melting polar ice can lead to significant and even abrupt changes in climate, both locally and on global scales.
About Teaching Principle 2
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Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
Other materials addressing:
C) Collecting information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:A) Processes that shape the Earth
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A) Processes that shape the Earth.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy
Learn more about the Benchmarks

Transfer of thermal energy between the atmosphere and the land or oceans produces temperature gradients in the atmosphere and the oceans. Regions at different temperatures rise or sink or mix, resulting in winds and ocean currents. These winds and ocean currents, which are also affected by the earth's rotation and the shape of the land, carry thermal energy from warm to cool areas.
Explore the map of concepts related to this benchmark

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Basically a good framework for an activity and great resource links, but activity needs to be developed further for students to learn much from the experience, e.g. How to draw the current direction and color will need to be more developed.
  • Educators will need to provide significant background information for students so they can complete the assignment and participate fully in the discussions.
  • Students are asked to use NASA's Live Access Server to collect two maps (one for SST and one for wind speed). Make sure that the students use the same date and region when compiling the two maps.
  • Students are asked to compare their maps with others in the class. It is useful for students to compare a variety of regions for the same time period or the same region over a variety of time periods. It may be less useful for students to compare maps that vary on both time and region.
  • Educators can find some supporting materials at NOAA's The Ocean's Role in Weather and Climate Educator Professional development site; http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/pd/oceans_weather_climate/welcome.html.

About the Science

  • This activity uses real data, including sea surface temperature (SST) and wind speed, from satellites to investigate the link between ocean temperatures and currents and draws a connection of ocean heat transport to global climate.
  • Excellent resources and databases (NOAA, NASA, NCAR ) provided under lesson links but most of them are not integrated into the activity.
  • Comment from scientist: The connection to winds, conveyor belts, and heat transport is not clear and sometimes wrong. For example, in the subpolar gyres, e.g., N. Pacific, the western boundary current is the Oyashio, which flows cold water equator-ward on the western side of the ocean. The warm currents on the west, cold currents on the east is thus an oversimplification. It would be much clearer if the pressures and geotrophic flow were used to explain the gyres. Then the connection to winds could also be made, since the Ekman flow ‘piles up the water’ in the center of the gyres. If that is too complicated, then just focus on the winds blowing clockwise or counterclockwise, which gives the sense of rotation of each gyre. Also, there is not enough detail given here to understand upwelling. A few words about Ekman flow to the right/left of the wind In the N/S hemisphere are needed; in connection with the gyre forcing discussion, this would be very helpful. The links in the exercise provide this information correctly.

About the Pedagogy

  • Students will struggle to create ocean circulation maps from the information provided. It will be important to provide students access to the background information necessary to make the connections among wind, temperature and ocean currents.
  • Students will need to be tech-savvy to deal with the data; discussions and conclusions will rely heavily on someone being able to read maps and having a good spatial understanding.
  • Students will need guidance from the teacher to get much out of this activity as student instructions are sketchy.
  • The benefit of the activity is that the students use data to connect variables to develop key concepts.
  • Teacher's guide is not sufficient, although some of the background information provided in links is quite useful.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Good design and concept.
  • Computer and printer access is essential. Students or small groups of students are each working on their own set of maps.

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Ocean Currents and Sea Surface Temperature --Discussion  

Good day, please i am on a PhD research in a Nigerian university and i want to focus my research on physical oceanography. please can you help me suggest a topic on physical oceanography that has elements of solar radiation in it or a topic that relates solar radiation with ocean currents or sea surface temperatures. Thanks


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