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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.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 1 Performance Expectation, 5 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 4 Cross Cutting Concepts, 5 Science and Engineering Practices
High School: 2 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 3 Cross Cutting Concepts, 4 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

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

  • 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.
  • Lesson has been archived by NASA but is still available as a PDF. Alternatives to archived lessons from MyNASAData can be found here: https://mynasadata.larc.nasa.gov/basic-page/archived-lessons-plans

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: 5

MS-ESS2.C2:The complex patterns of the changes and the movement of water in the atmosphere, determined by winds, landforms, and ocean temperatures and currents, are major determinants of local weather patterns.

MS-ESS2.C3:Global movements of water and its changes in form are propelled by sunlight and gravity.

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.

MS-ESS2.D3:The ocean exerts a major influence on weather and climate by absorbing energy from the sun, releasing it over time, and globally redistributing it through ocean currents.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 4

Energy and Matter, Patterns, Cause and effect

MS-C1.3: Patterns can be used to identify cause and effect relationships.

MS-C1.4:Graphs, charts, and images can be used to identify patterns in data.

MS-C2.3:Phenomena may have more than one cause, and some cause and effect relationships in systems can only be described using probability.

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

Science and Engineering Practices: 5

Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Asking Questions and Defining Problems

MS-P1.6:Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the classroom, outdoor environment, and museums and other public facilities with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on observations and scientific principles.

MS-P4.2:Use graphical displays (e.g., maps, charts, graphs, and/or tables) of large data sets to identify temporal and spatial relationships.

MS-P4.3: Distinguish between causal and correlational relationships in data.

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

MS-P6.3:Construct a scientific explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from sources (including the students’ own experiments) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

High School

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 2

HS-ESS2.A3:The geological record shows that changes to global and regional climate can be caused by interactions among changes in the sun’s energy output or Earth’s orbit, tectonic events, ocean circulation, volcanic activity, glaciers, vegetation, and human activities. These changes can occur on a variety of time scales from sudden (e.g., volcanic ash clouds) to intermediate (ice ages) to very long-term tectonic cycles.

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: 3

Patterns, Cause and effect, Scale, Proportion and Quantity

HS-C1.5:Empirical evidence is needed to identify patterns.

HS-C2.1:Empirical evidence is required to differentiate between cause and correlation and make claims about specific causes and effects.

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.

Science and Engineering Practices: 4

Asking Questions and Defining Problems, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions

HS-P1.6:Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the school laboratory, research facilities, or field (e.g., outdoor environment) with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on a model or theory.

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-P6.4:Apply scientific reasoning, theory, and/or models to link evidence to the claims to assess the extent to which the reasoning and data support the explanation or conclusion.

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