MSP:MiddleSchoolPortal/Oceans, Climate, and Weather

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Oceans, Climate, and Weather - Introduction

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Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.

This quote is one of the more famous lines attributed to Mark Twain. Whether he said it or not—it is a great line. He also reportedly noted that climate is what we expect, whereas weather is what we get.

What is the difference between weather and climate? What do the oceans have to do with them? Weather is the day-to-day state of the atmosphere and its short-term (minutes to weeks) variation. Climate is typically described by the regional patterns of seasonal temperature and precipitation over 30 years. The averages of annual temperature, rainfall, cloud cover, and depth of frost penetration are all typical climate-related statistics. The oceans influence the world’s climate by storing solar energy and distributing it around the planet through currents and atmospheric winds.

Dramatic weather events like hurricanes originate at sea, and long-term conditions such as average daily temperature and rainfall are influenced by the oceans. Other phenomenon, such as El Niño and La Niña are disruptions of the ocean-atmosphere system in the tropical Pacific that have profound consequences for weather around the globe. In other words, weather, climate, and the oceans are intricately linked.

This publication is all about developing your students’ understandings of earth’s oceans and the major effect they have on climate. Understanding and interpreting local weather data and understanding the relationship between weather and climate are important first steps to understanding larger-scale global climate changes. Activities that ask students to collect and analyze local weather data as well as analyze global data can be found in the Lessons and Activities section. Analyzing and interpreting data is a major focus of this publication. Numerous data sets can be found in the Sources for Real Data section. The Background Information section and the article Tomorrow’s Forecast will help reinforce your own content knowledge.

Background Information for Teachers

We've gathered here digital resources that will help you to teach middle school students about the relationships between oceans, weather, and climate and reinforce your content knowledge of these topics. For starters, have a look at the NSDL Strand Map Service. These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. An image of the middle grades (6-8) only part of the Weather and Climate map appears below. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals. Since many societal issues can be related to Weather and Climate phenomena, you may also want to have a look at one of the eight Human Society maps such as Global Interdependence.

Weather and Climate Map

View individual map Printable view of map

Exploratorium: Global Climate Change Through the exploration of scientific data, users can discover the changes in global climate through geologic time at this Exploratorium website. Users can find an introduction to the research of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, and biosphere to better understand climate change. Then, visitors can explore more in-depth descriptions and datasets related to these four spheres. Each section offers a few thought-provoking questions and links to more information. Individuals can also discover how scientists interpret past and present climate data and the difficulties associated with these predictions.

Ocean Surface Topography This site provides information on many aspects of the study of the sea surface from space. Measuring the ocean surface topography provides data on global ocean circulation and the oceans’ heat budget.

Climate Watch Climate Watch is an audio series organized around four areas: origins of climate, climate change, impacts of climate change, and action. Information is provided via the voices of scientists working in the atmospheric sciences.

Ocean and Climate This web page, one of NASA's fact sheets, describes the role of the oceans, clouds, and aerosols in moderating climate. It describes how the oceans interact with the atmosphere, physically exchanging heat, water, and momentum. This site also explains the chemical link between the ocean and the atmosphere. The emphasis is on the ocean's ability to store and release water vapor and carbon dioxide, both of which contribute to the greenhouse effect. The site also describes the efforts of scientists to construct computer models of the interactions between the atmosphere and ocean and to perform space-based oceanography using the Earth Observing System (EOS).

TOPEX/Poseidon—Overview This resource presents an overview of how the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite works, what factors affect ocean topography, and how ocean circulation affects the earth's climate.

Weather and Climate This site features visual resources and supporting data that illustrate the relationship between weather and climate. Resources are divided by topics, such as weather forecasting, warnings and data, and evidence for global warming. Visualizations and data sets include GIS-based animated maps, static maps, simple animations, and links to real-time stream gauge data. This site provides an array of visual resources that help demonstrate the difference between weather and climate and may be incorporated into lectures, labs, or other activities.

Lessons and Activities

Understanding and interpreting local weather data and understanding the relationship between weather and climate are important first steps to understanding larger-scale global climate changes.

LEARN: Atmospheric Science Explorers In two activities from this site, Differences Between Climate and Weather and Climate Variability, students can gain firsthand knowledge of local weather changes and how those changes relate to local climates. They can also simulate climate variability and come to understand that long-term climate averages are the result of significant annual climate variability.

Climate This interactive lesson explains how weather is a series of atmospheric phenomena and climate is a record of the various phenomena. Students will learn about climate in seven different regions of the United States. An online quiz on climate gives instant results.

Climate Discovery Teacher's Guide: The Little Ice Age Case Study In this unit, students explore how scientists study climates of the past by modeling the scientists’ methods. The lessons address the difference between weather and climate, direct and indirect evidence of climate change, and natural indicators of climate such as tree rings. The lessons also examine what conditions were like in the "Little Ice Age" between 1300 and 1850 A.D. A lesson on glaciers uses imagery to show how they respond to climate change, and a lesson on sunspots uses real data to show the connection between sunspot activity and the earth’s climate. There is also a lesson on the effect of volcanism on climate. A summary activity brings together all these concepts to draw conclusions about possible natural causes of climate change.

The United Kingdom Environmental Change Network: Climate This tutorial provides an overview of the difference between weather and climate and the factors that affect climates. Factors discussed include distance of an area from the sea, ocean currents, wind direction, relief, proximity to the equator, El Niño, and human activities.

What's Up With the Weather: Frequently Asked Questions The answers to these frequently asked questions help the average citizen navigate the debate about climate change. Question topics range from the difference between weather and climate to our dependence on fossil fuels to energy efficiency.

Tomorrow's Forecast: Oceans and Weather

This section is reprinted from the September/October 1995 issue of Art to Zoo: Teaching with the Power of Objects, published by the Smithsonian Institution, retrieved August 29, 2006 from

Whether you live on the gentle rolling plains of the Midwest or the glittering desert sands of the Southwest – no matter where in the world you are – your life is intimately tied to our planet's oceans. Even if you've never gone to a beach to watch a sunrise or sunset or to ride the waves, the oceans probably affected you as recently as this morning – when you may have checked the weather and decided what to wear.

The oceans influence the world's climate by storing vast amounts of solar energy and distributing that energy around the planet through currents and accompanying atmospheric winds. Dramatic weather events like hurricanes originate at sea, and the oceans also influence long-term conditions such as average daily temperature and rainfall. These factors in turn affect the variety and volume of crops that can be grown and the number of fish that can be caught. In fact, the oceans affect all life on our planet.

In the complex recipe of Earth's climate and weather, no ingredient is more important than the Sun. Without its intense energy, life on our planet would be impossible. At an average distance of 93 million miles (150 million kilometers), only 1/2 billionth of the Sun's energy reaches Earth. Yet even that fraction of the Sun's power is massive—totaling some 1.8 × 1014 kilowatts, or more than 300,000 times the electrical generating capacity of the United States!

Not all of that solar radiation reaches the surface of Earth. Some energy is scattered by the atmosphere on its way to the surface or is reflected back by the clouds, leaving about 45 percent to complete the journey. This solar radiation is absorbed (as heat) in differing amounts by the various surfaces on Earth. Land areas heat up quickly during the day and cool rapidly at night, radiating much of their energy back to space. Luckily, atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide and water vapor retain certain types of radiation that warm the atmosphere. Scientists have termed this phenomenon the greenhouse effect.

As compared with the continents, the world's oceans absorb much more of the incoming solar radiation and reflect much less back to space. That is because water has a higher heat capacity (holds more heat per unit volume) than land or air. Not surprisingly, the oceans' higher heat capacity directly affects the climate of our planet. The insulating effect of water gives coastal areas a more moderate range of temperatures than inland areas have at the same latitude.

The energy from the Sun (in the form of heat) fuels the circulation of Earth's atmosphere. Regions near the equator receive more heat than those near the poles. Warmer, lighter air rises at the equator while cooler, denser air sinks at the poles. This sets up a pole-to-equator movement of air at the surface and an equator-to-pole movement of air aloft, although actual atmospheric circulation is somewhat more complex. Because of Earth's rotation, atmospheric winds appear to be deflected to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere.

Ocean Currents—Going with the Flow

The circulation of the world's oceans generally mirrors the movements of the atmosphere. Surface currents driven by atmospheric winds move warm equatorial waters to the poles and cold polar waters toward the equator—setting up nearly circular patterns of movement known as gyres. Before steam-powered ships were introduced in the nineteenth century, sailors used these winds and currents to cross vast stretches of ocean. Many of the routes they took, such as those between Europe and America, were physically longer than the trade routes used today. Rather than setting out directly west from Europe, sailors moved parallel to the west coasts of Europe and North Africa until they reached the "trade winds" that carried them westward across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.

Today scientists recognize that ocean currents are more than natural highways of commerce. These massive movements of ocean water play a pivotal role in determining the climate of Earth, although their behavior is not entirely understood. And, of the myriad currents flowing through the open ocean and along the edges of continents, the Gulf Stream may have the greatest influence on climate.

This swift-moving current transports more than 100 times the outflow of all the world's rivers as it moves northeastward from Cuba to Newfoundland. Caribbean heat continues eastward (in the form of the North Atlantic Drift), greatly moderating the coastal European climate. Much of Britain, the southern parts of which lie north of the U.S.–Canadian border, experiences winters as mild as those of northern Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, which are fifteen to twenty degrees in latitude further south!

The counterpart to the Gulf Stream in the Pacific is the Kuroshio (or Japan) Current, which moves from the Philippines northward past Taiwan and Japan. Overall, the climatic effects of the Kuroshio Current are less extensive than those of the Gulf Stream. Towering mountain ranges along the west coast of North America confine the effects of the current's waters to relatively small areas. Other, similar currents affect climate on the rest of the planet. The relatively cold California, Peru, Benguela, and Canary Currents flow around the west coasts of the Americas, Africa, and Europe, creating cool, moist surface air with frequent fog and overcast skies.

An Ocean of Difference: El Niño—An Ocean Child

Not all ocean waters have a moderating effect on weather and climate. A massive ocean-atmosphere interaction in the tropical Pacific known as El Niño has brought about climatic devastation worldwide. The term El Niño (Spanish for "the Christ Child") was coined more than a century ago by Peruvian and Ecuadorian fishermen who noted that in some years a warm ocean current appeared during the Christmas season and lasted for several months.

The strongest El Niño event of this century occurred from 1982 to 1983 and has been blamed for $8 billion in damage worldwide. Climatic effects of this El Niño included drought and brush fires in Australia, Indonesia, southern India, and parts of Africa and Brazil. In contrast, heavy rains fell along the equator, in Southern California, and the southeastern United States, while winter temperatures soared far above normal in the interior of Canada.

While scientists do not entirely understand the causes of El Niño, they believe that it is linked to dramatic atmospheric changes that typically occur over the North Pacific every 2 to 7 years. In normal years, prevailing winds blowing from the east help to push Earth's warmest ocean water into the western Pacific. For reasons that aren't clear, occasionally the prevailing winds weaken and the warm water begins to move eastward across the Pacific toward South America—starting El Niño.

El Niño's effects extend far beyond the South American coast. Storm systems that would normally have been kept farther west by the prevailing winds move into the central equatorial Pacific, bringing heavy rain to typically dry islands. These heavy storm systems further disrupt the normal flow of the jet streams across the Northern Hemisphere. In any El Niño year the polar jet stream shifts northward over western North America, resulting in mild winters over western Canada and the north central United States. At the same time the subtropical jet stream is more vigorous than normal, bringing heavy rainfall to the southern United States.

Tomorrow's Forecast

Every day scientists gather vast amounts of data about the world's oceans from Earth-orbiting satellites, ocean-traversing research vessels, and drifting buoys. Advanced computer models process this raw data, helping scientists to forecast not only the probability of common weather systems but also the dramatic effects of El Niño. These efforts have been so successful that individuals, corporations, and governments alike have come to depend on weather and climate forecasts to make critical choices.

Whether it's a decision to plant more or less of a crop, to import or export a product, or to invest in a developing technology, the ocean is an important factor. Yet there is still much to be learned about the complex interactions between the ocean and atmosphere in determining our planet's weather. The ocean and atmosphere are so intertwined that it is often unclear which is driving the other at any given time. However, whatever the process, the ocean will always play an important role in tomorrow's weather.

Sources for Real Data

Many of the activities in the Lessons and Activities section ask students to collect and analyze real data. Here are some sites that provide current data on many environmental factors.

Goddard Institute of Space Studies: Data and Images On this web site, the GISS provides data sets and images of earth and the atmosphere. Users can access earth observation data such as storms, aerosols, temperature, global climate modeling, and radiation.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Climate Homepage This site offers a variety of links to climate monitoring resources, including archived climate data, U.S. drought assessment, global climate change information, weather observation stations, and more. Users can also link to organizations that participate in climate research, such as the National Climate Data Center, Ocean Climate Laboratory, and the National Weather service.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities. Visit the virtual learning experience on Oceans and Weather.


The FunWorks

Visit the FunWorks STEM career website for youth to browse science-related careers, including meteorologist, environmental scientist, and marine biologist.

Latest Scientific News from the New York Times

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National Science Education Standards

These excerpts from the National Science Education Standards relate to the study of oceans and climate in middle school. Earth and Space Science

As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop an understanding of

  • Structure of the earth system
  • Global patterns of atmospheric movement influence local weather. Oceans have a major effect on climate, because water in the oceans holds a large amount of heat.
  • Earth in the solar system
  • The sun is the major source of energy for phenomena on the earth's surface, such as growth of plants, winds, ocean currents, and the water cycle.

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Author and Copyright

Kimberly Lightle is director and science resource specialist for the Middle School Portal 2: Math & Science Pathways project.

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Copyright September 2006 - The Ohio State University. Last updated August 24, 2010. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0424671 and since September 1, 2009 Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.