The Ocean-Carbon Connection

National Marine Sanctuary Foundation Caroline Joyce, Todd Viola, and Andrew Amster NOAA Ocean Data Education (NODE) Project
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Graph , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Map
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.


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The Ocean-Carbon Connection, starting on page 17 of the link,  is level two of five levels contained in the Understanding Ocean Acidification curriculum module developed for the NOAA Ocean Data Education (NODE) Project. In this lesson, students examine graphs and maps to identify changes in pH, sea surface temperatures (SST), and dissolved CO2 levels in the Caribbean. Students then correlate changes in pH and SST to changes in CO2 levels over time. The interactive data interface is easy to operate and instructions are included in the teacher’s guide. Also included in this lesson is a demonstration of the formation of carbonic acid which requires distilled water, bromophenol blue indicator (or other similar indicator), and either dry ice or a straw. If these supplies are unavailable, a video demonstration may be substituted. If teachers choose to print out the maps, printing in color is recommended.

The suggested time for this lesson is 40 minutes, but may take longer depending on the length of student discussions of the presented graphs and maps.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 12
  • Grade 11
  • Grade 10
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

HS-ESS3-6 Use a computational representation to illustrate the relationships among Earth systems and how those relationships are being modified due to human activity.

Clarification Statement: Examples of Earth systems to be considered are the hydrosphere, atmosphere, cryosphere, geosphere, and/or biosphere. An example of the far-reaching impacts from a human activity is how an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide results in an increase in photosynthetic biomass on land and an increase in ocean acidification, with resulting impacts on sea organism health and marine populations.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include running computational representations but is limited to using the published results of scientific computational models.

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students examine several graphs and maps of changes in the water of the Caribbean. The first graph presented to students shows pH changes from 1988 to 2010. Then they are presented with a pH graph and sea surface temperature graph from 2009 and asked to determine how the two graphs correlate. A fourth graph of sea surface temperature from 1988 to 2010 is used to identify trends and correlations to the pH graph. Students then analyze average monthly temperature maps for the month of May from 1990 and 2010. Finally, students are tasked with generating a graph of the partial pressure of CO2 in seawater to develop an explanation of what might be increasing the amount of dissolved CO2 in the ocean. Student’s prior knowledge of the carbon cycle, human activity increasing atmospheric CO2 levels, and pH should allow them to directly attribute the increased dissolved CO2 in seawater, increased sea surface temperature and decreased pH levels to human activity increasing atmospheric CO2.

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 must use prior knowledge of the carbon cycle, how human activities have increased atmospheric CO2 levels, and pH in order to explain why ocean acidification is occurring. Students must use the information from the presented and derived graphs and maps and demonstration to fully explain the phenomenon. This science and engineering practice is fully addressed in later lessons (Lessons 3-5 of the module) where students closely examine ocean chemistry, global climate change, and effects of those on coral reef systems.

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

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students use NOAA data through the Ocean Acidification module to generate a graph of dissolved CO2 levels in seawater in the Caribbean in order to identify the cause of ocean acidification is due to increased dissolved CO2 levels. Students must also use information from the other six graphs and maps presented in this lesson to fully develop their claim about possible causes of decreasing pH levels in seawater, increasing dissolved CO2 levels in seawater, and increasing sea surface temperature.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students focus on how oceanic changes in pH, surface temperatures, and dissolved CO2 levels have changed since 1988. When students revisit the carbon cycle in step 10 of the lesson, they are directed to focus on the interaction of carbon exchange at the ocean-atmosphere boundary. In order for students to make the connection to human activity, they must have previously studied how human activity has increased the amount of atmospheric CO2. The disciplinary core idea is fully addressed by later lessons (Lessons 3 and 4) where students use computer simulations and study the effects of oceanic chemistry changes on coral reef systems.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The focus of this lesson is on causes of change to ocean chemistry. Students must use prior knowledge and new knowledge to develop an explanation for how/why this change is occurring. This crosscutting concept may be fully addressed if students choose to research ways to keep oceanic and atmospheric CO2 levels stable in level 5, Develop Your Own Investigation.

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students evaluate empirical evidence in data provided by NOAA to differentiate between cause and effect and correlation. In procedure part 6 of this lesson, students may begin to think there is a cause and effect relationship between decreasing pH values and increasing sea surface temperatures. By the end of this lesson in procedure part 11, students should identify that the cause and effect relationship is due to increased amounts of dissolved CO2 levels caused by increased atmospheric CO2 levels.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This lesson incorporates multiple science and engineering practices and crosscutting concepts to make sense of a phenomenon, ocean acidification, while deepening knowledge of a disciplinary core idea. Students must integrate all three dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards in order to develop their answer to, “what might cause an increase in dissolved CO2 in the ocean (and the resulting increased ocean acidity)?” Students must construct an explanation using evidence (science and engineering practice) from graphical and map data analysis (science and engineering practice) to identify that the cause (crosscutting concept) of decreasing ocean pH is due to increased amounts of dissolved CO2 in the ocean due to increased amounts of atmospheric CO2 (crosscutting concept) because of human activity (disciplinary core idea). Teachers should require students to form their explanation using a claim, evidence, reasoning format ( to ensure full alignment to the dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards.

  • Instructional Supports: Students are engaged in the phenomena of ocean acidification. Many students may not know what this is or why it’s a problem. Completing the entire unit would also make the topic more relevant to students. Teachers could show students a short video ( about coral bleaching to get students engaged in figuring out why and how the ocean is changing. Students may have very few opportunities to connect the phenomenon to their own experiences, but also introducing how similar changes affect bodies of freshwater ( may increase those opportunities. This lesson requires that students use and build on their prior knowledge to deepen their understanding of the phenomenon. Students use scientifically accurate and grade appropriate information. Multiple opportunities exist through discussion for students to both clarify their ideas and receive feedback. No suggestions are provided in the teaching guide to support differentiated instruction. It would be up to the teacher to develop any tools to support struggling students or extension activities.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: If teachers have students answer question four using a claim, evidence, reasoning format, there will be direct evidence of three dimensional learning. Formative assessments in the form of discussion questions, are embedded throughout the lesson. Almost all formative and summative assessments include possible student answers. Those not given possible student answers are mainly asking for student predictions of what they would expect a graph to look like. No scoring guides or rubrics are provided. Assessment of student proficiency may be biased if students lack the required prior knowledge (carbon cycle, pH, and human activity increasing atmospheric CO2 levels).

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Teachers and students will need a computer with internet access to generate graphs and maps using the data interface. Step-by-step instructions are included in both the teacher guide and student worksheet.