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This lesson explores El Niño by looking at sea surface temperature, sea surface height, and wind vectors in order to seek out any correlations there may be among these three variables using the My NASA Data Live Access Server. The lesson guides the students through data representing the strong El Niño from 1997 to 1998. In this way, students will model the methods of researchers who bring their expertise to study integrated science questions.

Activity takes two 50-minute class periods. Access to a computer lab is necessary.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»


Grade Level

Educator notes include suggestions for modifying the activity for grades 6-8.

Regional Focus

Climate Literacy

This Activity builds on the following concepts of Climate Literacy.

Click a topic below for supporting information, teaching ideas, and sample activities.

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
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

  • Some terminology has changed in the My NASA Data Live Access Server web interface, but it should be easy for educators to adapt their instructions to the student users of this website.
  • There are no obvious instructions on how to save the images produced by the Live Access Server: Educators will need to make sure to instruct their students.
  • Activity has students getting data by hand, which is a lot of work. Educators could download data ahead of time for students.
  • Extensions to this lesson offer additional inquiry activities that address this topic.
  • Other El Niño activities that include more recent data can be found at: http://sealevel.jpl.nasa.gov/.

About the Science

  • Students analyze data from 1997 and 1998, when there was a strong El Niño event.
  • The Live Data Server does contain more recent data that could be used if educators wanted to consider a more recent El Niño event.
  • TOPEX-Poseidon has been decommissioned: data on sea level is now collected by Jason 1 and 2.
  • Student teams study single variables - sea surface height, sea surface temperature, or wind vectors using NASA data. Each team examines all variables for several dates to identify characteristic features of the static images and the changes in these features over time. Teams then describe the temporal variations they observe, look for relationships among the three variables, and discuss the causes and effects of these relationships.
  • Comment from scientist: The connections among wind, sea surface temperature and thermocline etc. are accurate but rushed. Educators should provide more explanation of the connections or the figures. Detailed information can be found on the PMEL webpage http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/tao/elnino/nino-home.html.

About the Pedagogy

  • Different learning styles are addressed through the team approach. The use of animations in this activity supplies an alternate tool to improve student understanding. Both visual observations and written answers are required to the posed questions.

Technical Details/Ease of Use


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