Ocean Currents and Sea Surface Temperature

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Joan Carter (Lesson plan)
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Numerical/Computer Model , Tool/Software , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Map , Graph , Image/Image Set , Data
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This interactive tool allows students to gather data using My NASA Data microsets to investigate how differential heating of Earth results in circulation patterns in the oceans and the atmosphere that globally distribute the heat. They examine the relationship between the rotation of Earth and the circular motions of ocean currents and air. Students also make predictions based on the data to concerns about global climate change. They begin by examining the temperature of ocean’s surface currents and ocean surface winds. These currents, driven by the wind, mark the movement of surface heating as monitored by satellites. Students explore the link between 1) ocean temperatures and currents, 2) uneven heating and rotation of Earth, 3) resulting climate and weather patterns, and 4) projected impacts of climate change (global warming). Using the Live Access Server, students can select data sets for various elements for different regions of the globe, at different times of the year, and for multiple years. The information is provided in maps or graphs which can be saved for future reference. Some of the data sets accessed for this lesson include Sea Surface Temperature, Cloud Coverage, and Sea Level Height for this lesson. The lesson provides directions for accessing the data as well as questions to guide discussion and learning. The estimated time for completing the activity is 50 minutes. Inclusion of the Extension activities could broaden the scope of the lesson to several days in length. Links to informative maps and text such as the deep ocean conveyor belt, upwelling, and coastal fog as needed to answer questions in the extension activities are included.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • High School
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

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.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on how patterns vary by latitude, altitude, and geographic land distribution. Emphasis of atmospheric circulation is on the sunlight-driven latitudinal banding, the Coriolis effect, and resulting prevailing winds; emphasis of ocean circulation is on the transfer of heat by the global ocean convection cycle, which is constrained by the Coriolis effect and the outlines of continents. Examples of models can be diagrams, maps and globes, or digital representations

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include the dynamics of the Coriolis effect.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The collection of data using the microsets provides the elements necessary to create a model of oceanic and atmospheric circulation and resulting regional climates. Discussion questions begin to examine unequal heating of Earth’s surface and oceans, the prevailing winds, and the convection cycle in the ocean, but the teacher will need to include further in-depth questions or activities. Also, to fully address the Performance Expectation, students need to develop a model that incorporates the unequal heating of Earth’s surface, such as the one found at http://www.arm.gov/education/teacher-tools/lessons/Hotter-at-Equator-Gr-6-8.pdf?id=91, and the patterns of atmospheric and oceanic circulation. They should then use that model to predict patterns in other regions or during different times of the year. The lesson provides access to the information, but doesn’t encourage students to examine the patterns and develop their own model.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students use patterns in maps and data in the Data Microsets to determine relationships between the uneven heating of earth’s surface and oceanic and atmospheric circulations that distribute the heat. They make predictions about climate change based on the maps and data, which touches on correlation and causation and data and error analysis, but the teacher will need to ask specific questions about this aspect of the practice. After gathering adequate information and sharing information with others, the teacher will need to ask guiding questions to enable students to see the patterns and provide an opportunity to determine the relationship of the impact of circulation patterns over time and around the world.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The Disciplinary Core Ideas are mentioned in the questions provided for the students to answer, but the teacher will need to lead the students into examining the flow of energy within the Earth systems. Questions should ask about the source of the energy, its transfer and impact on the ocean; as well as the impact the ocean has on climates and weather. Students can draw scientific diagrams and use other models to show the flow of energy.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students use maps, graphs, and charts from the Data Microsets to develop a model of Earth's oceanic and atmospheric systems. Their model can be used to describe the patterns of unequal heating of Earth’s surface, atmospheric and oceanic circulation and the resulting regional climates.

This resource was not designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
When using the microsets and examining the data, students should be synthesizing information about ocean currents and sea surface temperature. They should follow the input and output of energy within Earth’s systems as highlighted in maps and graphs. The teacher could ask the students to describe their understanding of Earth’s systems as a whole, which can be represented by a model.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The three dimensions work together to support students in making sense of ocean currents and sea surface temperature. Elements of the disciplinary core idea are addressed. Analysis of the microsets provides opportunities to address how unequal heating of and rotation of Earth causes patterns of oceanic circulation, how 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. Parts of the performance expectation concerning patterns of oceanic circulation and resulting regional climates are included. The patterns of atmospheric circulation are not addressed. Students use two crosscutting concepts, using models of oceanic circulation and looking for patterns, as well as the Science and Engineering Practice of using models.

  • Instructional Supports: The lesson provides relevant multiple phenomena that relate to the three dimensions. It engages students in authentic and meaningful scenarios in which they select areas of interest to study. Material is presented in a scientifically accurate manner appropriate for middle school students since they are using microsets of real data. Students engage in multiple practices to make sense of data. Students express and justify their ideas in response to questions, but the teacher would need to ask them to respond to teacher and peer feedback in discussions held with the class. Extension questions are provided for differentiation of learning, although no directions are provided for students who struggle to meet performance expectations. The teacher notes and answer key provided are helpful. Prerequisite student knowledge is described in the lesson plan providing teachers with guidance on how the lesson builds on prior knowledge.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The activity elicits multiple representations of students’ understanding for formative assessment purposes. Open-ended questions ask for synthesis of information gathered from various sets of data. Formative assessments are not provided, although the teacher could design rubrics or scoring guides to assess student proficiency based on the answer key and ask additional questions to help students analyze data. Students use models based on the multiple representations and could evaluate and communicate information to the rest of the class. Engaging in argument from evidence could be a natural consequence of the presentations.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The Live Access Server provides access to microsets of data applicable to the goals of this lesson as well as extensions into related areas. The directions for using the server are rather complex and it isn’t clear what the final steps are to get a map or chart that you can save or print. If you are patient you can figure out how to access and save many different sets of data. Two of the links to resources aren't working "Upwelling in the World Ocean" and "Global Wind Patterns."