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Detecting El Nino in Sea Surface Temperature Data

David Smith, Betsy Youngman, Earth Exploration Toolbook Chapter from TERC

This multi-part activity introduces users to normal seasonal sea surface temperature (SST) variation as well as extreme variation, as in the case of El Niño and La Niña events, in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Via a THREDDS server, users learn how to download seasonal SST data for the years 1982 to 1998. Using a geographic information system (GIS), they visualize and analyze that data, looking for the tell-tale SST signature of El Nino and La Nina events that occurred during that time period. At the end, students analyze a season of their own choosing to determine if an El Niño or La Niña SST pattern emerged in that year's data.

Activity takes between four and six 45-minute class periods. Computer access is necessary.

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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

  • Teachers may want to create a summative assessment for each part of the activity since none is supplied.

About the Science

  • Good background content for educators and students.
  • Comment from scientist: The physical connections between the variables explored in the activity are not well explained and will need further explanation by the educator. Ideally an educator would encourage a hypothesis-based inquiry which could then lead in an understanding if the analyzed variables are connected.

About the Pedagogy

  • Student directions are very detailed and well sequenced.
  • Screenshots aid student navigation through the software and website.
  • Most of the assessment questions are embedded in the student directions. No summative assessment supplied.
  • A thorough and complete guide is supplied for educators.
  • Students who are not very tech-savvy will need guidance from educator.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Requires use of My World GIS. Must be downloaded for free trial or purchased for $99 for a classroom license.

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