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Global Ocean Conveyor Belt

Environmental Literacy Framework, ANDRILL

This hands-on activity explores the driving forces behind global thermohaline circulation.

This activity takes about one to two 50-minute class periods (one period is stated but when providing the context it will likely take two periods).

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 1 Performance Expectation, 2 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 5 Cross Cutting Concepts, 6 Science and Engineering Practices
High School: 1 Performance Expectation, 1 Disciplinary Core Idea, 5 Cross Cutting Concepts, 6 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Ocean as climate control, oceanic conveyor belt; abrupt changes in thermohaline circulation
About Teaching Principle 2
Other materials addressing 2b

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:A) Processes that shape the Earth
Other materials addressing:
A) Processes that shape the Earth.

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

  • In order to effectively teach about the ocean conveyor belt, the PowerPoint presentation should be shown ahead of time so students are prepared for the content. Educator might want to have students think about ways in which they want to engage an audience in this material ahead of time - emphasizing how the ocean conveyor belt affects their own lives where they live.
  • Educator is encouraged to make the salty icebergs ahead of time. In some cases, using an submersible aquarium heater works well for an activity like this.
  • Assigning groups of students to experiment with different water mass scenarios works well - then have students present their results to their classmates before going to a wider audience.

About the Science

  • The ocean conveyor belt transports heat throughout Earth's oceans and controls Earth's climate patterns.
  • Explanations of the factors that drive thermohaline circulation – density gradients, surface air temperature, surface winds, ocean temperature variations, fresh water fluxes etc. – are very simplified and only briefly explained. For an in-depth understanding of these factors, educator should explore additional materials.
  • Background material suggests that thermohaline circulation may have stopped or slowed down. In fact, scientific evidence exists that suggests that major freshwater fluxes, particularly at the end of the last major glaciation, slowed down the Gulf Stream; no scientific evidence exists that indicates a stopping of thermohaline circulation or the Gulf Stream.
  • Comments from expert scientist: Strong because it contains practice with prediction, observation, and explanation. Varies both temperature and salinity so students can differentiate between them and their separate effects on water density.

About the Pedagogy

  • The hands-on activity is the core of this investigation. However, links to animations that show the same effect is provided for educators who need to substitute the hands-on part of the investigation.
  • Students will need guidance to understand the implications of what they see in the experiment and how it relates to thermoahaline circulation. Applying this understanding to the global ocean conveyor belt will take some guidance and classroom discussions.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • The lesson is carefully designed and provided as a downloadable pdf. A PowerPoint presentation accompanying the lesson is available.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

Middle School

Performance Expectations: 1

MS-ESS2-6: Develop and use a model to describe how unequal heating and rotation of the Earth cause patterns of atmospheric and oceanic circulation that determine regional climates.

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 2

MS-ESS2.C4:Variations in density due to variations in temperature and salinity drive a global pattern of interconnected ocean currents.

MS-ESS2.D1:Weather and climate are influenced by interactions involving sunlight, the ocean, the atmosphere, ice, landforms, and living things. These interactions vary with latitude, altitude, and local and regional geography, all of which can affect oceanic and atmospheric flow patterns.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 5

Systems and System Models, Energy and Matter, Stability and Change, Cause and effect, Scale, Proportion and Quantity

MS-C4.2: Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions—such as inputs, processes and outputs—and energy, matter, and information flows within systems.

MS-C5.2: Within a natural or designed system, the transfer of energy drives the motion and/or cycling of matter.

MS-C7.3:Stability might be disturbed either by sudden events or gradual changes that accumulate over time.

MS-C2.2:Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems.

MS-C3.1:Time, space, and energy phenomena can be observed at various scales using models to study systems that are too large or too small.

Science and Engineering Practices: 6

Developing and Using Models, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information, Asking Questions and Defining Problems

MS-P2.5:Develop and/or use a model to predict and/or describe phenomena.

MS-P3.4:Collect data to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence to answer scientific questions or test design solutions under a range of conditions

MS-P4.4:Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena.

MS-P6.2:Construct an explanation using models or representations.

MS-P8.5:Communicate scientific and/or technical information (e.g. about a proposed object, tool, process, system) in writing and/or through oral presentations.

MS-P1.1:Ask questions that arise from careful observation of phenomena, models, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.

High School

Performance Expectations: 1

HS-ESS2-4: Use a model to describe how variations in the flow of energy into and out of Earth’s systems result in changes in climate.

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 1

HS-ESS2.D1:The foundation for Earth’s global climate systems is the electromagnetic radiation from the sun, as well as its reflection, absorption, storage, and redistribution among the atmosphere, ocean, and land systems, and this energy’s re-radiation into space.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 5

Cause and effect, Scale, Proportion and Quantity, Systems and System Models, Energy and Matter, Stability and Change

HS-C2.2:Cause and effect relationships can be suggested and predicted for complex natural and human designed systems by examining what is known about smaller scale mechanisms within the system.

HS-C3.2: Some systems can only be studied indirectly as they are too small, too large, too fast, or too slow to observe directly.

HS-C4.3:Models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) can be used to simulate systems and interactions—including energy, matter, and information flows—within and between systems at different scales.

HS-C5.2:Changes of energy and matter in a system can be described in terms of energy and matter flows into, out of, and within that system.

HS-C7.2:Change and rates of change can be quantified and modeled over very short or very long periods of time. Some system changes are irreversible.

Science and Engineering Practices: 6

Asking Questions and Defining Problems, Developing and Using Models, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

HS-P1.1:ask questions that arise from careful observation of phenomena, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.

HS-P2.3:Develop, revise, and/or use a model based on evidence to illustrate and/or predict the relationships between systems or between components of a system

HS-P3.5:Make directional hypotheses that specify what happens to a dependent variable when an independent variable is manipulated.

HS-P4.1:Analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims or determine an optimal design solution.

HS-P6.1:Make a quantitative and/or qualitative claim regarding the relationship between dependent and independent variables.

HS-P8.5:Communicate scientific and/or technical information or ideas (e.g. about phenomena and/or the process of development and the design and performance of a proposed process or system) in multiple formats (i.e., orally, graphically, textually, mathematically).

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