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Education: Student Outcomes

Filtered by outcome: 9-12q6
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Outcome: Explain how climate variations can induce changes in the global ocean circulation.
Grade level: 9-12
Theme: climate

Activity 4.3: Convection (p. 36-37). A good grasp of the underlying principles of thermal physics is essential for understanding how the ocean functions and how it impacts climate. Thermal physics is one of the science subjects that students are familiar with and experience on a daily basis, but intertwined with the experiential knowledge they bring to class comes a mixed bag of misconceptions that must be identified and addressed. Example misconceptions include an inability to differentiate between heat and temperature, the notion that transfer of heat will always result in a temperature rise, and a misunderstanding of the concept of latent heat.

The purpose of this activity is to review basic concepts of thermal physics and highlight applications to ocean processes by focusing on the concept of convection. Convection and advection are the major modes of heat transfer in the ocean and atmosphere. Convection occurs only in fluids and involves vertical motion of fluid, or flow, rather than interactions at the molecular level. It results from differences in densities - hence buoyancy - of fluids. Examples of convective processes include: currents in Earth's mantle, which drive the tectonic system and result from heating and cooling of magma; atmospheric circulation resulting from uneven solar heating (e.g., between the poles and the equator); the global ocean conveyor belt and formation of deep water masses, resulting from cooling of surface water at high latitudes; and vertical mixing in the ocean's upper layer due to variations in heating between day and night. Advection usually refers to horizontal transfer of heat with the flow of water (e.g., the Gulf Stream).

Read the following sections of Chapter 4 (Heat and Temperature) in preparation for this activity:

  •  Background (p. 32)
  •  Mechanisms of Heat Transfer (p. 33)

Flash Video | QuickTime Movie
Grade level: 9-12
Theme: climate
Video: keeping_up_carbon_03.flv

At the most basic level, the balance between incoming sunlight and outgoing heat determines Earth's climate. Greenhouse gases act like a blanket, and trap heat in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. In the past two centuries, humans have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide by more than 30%, by burning fossil-fuels and cutting down forests. The Earth has not experienced carbon dioxide levels this high for the past several million years.

Researchers are learning that future climate change will depend on carbon levels in the land, in the atmosphere, and in the sea, and how these levels respond to human disturbance. About one-third of all human-generated carbon emissions has dissolved into the ocean. More than 80% of Earth's added heat is now stored in the ocean.

Scott Doney: "In the future, as the planet gets warmer, the water's going to warm up, and warm water can hold less carbon than cold water - the other thing is, on a warmer planet, some of the currents are going to slow down, so we might not be forming as much of this cold deep water. So we won't be able to transport carbon into the deep sea. So on the whole, the ocean's going to become less effective at removing carbon from the atmosphere." (source)
Grade level: 9-12
Theme: climate
Video: keeping_up_carbon_04.flv

Throughout most of Earth's ocean, the warmer water, weaker circulation, and new temperature gradients that result from climate change will impact marine life and ecosystems. These changes affect the ocean's ability to store carbon. Increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere impacts marine life in other ways.

Stacey Boland: "As the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide, it becomes more acidic, and this can be a threat to some of the organisms that live inside the ocean."

As Earth's climate continues to change, how will researchers monitor something as big as the ocean, and something as complex as the carbon cycle? NASA Earth observing satellites give scientists the "big picture" view of our home planet. Varied satellites help researchers detect changes in ocean climate and ecology over time, providing vital insight into the health of our home planet. (source)
Grade level: 9-12
Theme: climate
Video: melting_ice_03.flv

Two thirds of the fresh water on Earth is frozen in the world's ice fields. If that ice melts, seas will rise. If all of that ice were to melt, sea level would rise worldwide by 70 meters. No one expects all of that ice to melt anytime soon, but even the meter of sea level rise that many scientists predict for the next century could have dramatic consequences.

Lora Koenig: "Even though the polar regions seem very far from a lot of people's day to day life, they are very important. Because they are regions that cool our earth. And as they change, they're going to cause larger changes throughout the rest of the globe." (source)
Grade level: 9-12
Theme: climate
Video: melting_ice_02.flv

It's important to understand how the world's ice sheets form, how they change over time, and how fast they are moving into the sea. That's where researchers like NASA's Lora Koenig come in. She recently spent three months in Greenland studying the composition of those ice sheets. All ice sheets and glaciers start as snowfall. Those tiny flakes get compressed by the weight of more snow above, and eventually become dense masses of ice.

Lora Koenig: "What we're seeing right now on the ice sheets and glaciers is that they are shrinking in size. And as glaciers on land are shrinking overall, that contributes a little bit to sea level rise. And we are worried that as we see warming over the ice sheets, and increased melting over the ice sheets, that they are going to start contributing much more to sea level rise." (source)
Grade level: 9-12
Theme: climate
Video: melting_ice_04.flv

Josh Willis: "A lot of people live in coastal areas. Coastal places that have beaches. As sea level rises, then beaches begin to erode and we begin to lose wetlands. A lot of different ecologically-sensitive regions lie along the coastline, and as sea level rises, these get flooded (and) the ecosystems, of course, change. And so all of this can have big consequences for people and especially people who live near the coast."

Josh Willis: "As the great ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland begin to melt and break up due to global warming, we really might experience very rapid sea level rise; three or four times as fast as the rate that we see today. So predicting this rate out into the future is very tricky because we really don't know when the ice sheets might break up and how fast they will when they do. So predicting future sea level rise is one of the great scientific problems of the future." (source)
Grade level: 9-12
Theme: climate

This data visualizer gives access to the following global ocean surface current behaviors between 1992 and 2008: current speed, current direction, current convergence, and current vorticity as well as the anomaly values for each.