EarthLabs for Educators > Climate and the Carbon Cycle > Lab 6: Oceans and the Carbon Cycle

Lab 6: Oceans and the Carbon Cycle

The lab activity described here was developed by Candace Dunlap of TERC for the EarthLabs project.

Summary and Learning Objectives

Oceans absorb, transport and store huge amounts of carbon. In Part A, students will learn about the physical, chemical and biological processes that move carbon into and around the ocean. In Part B, students will learn about the role of phytoplankton in the ocean's uptake of carbon in greater depth by analyzing conditions and locations for its growth. They will learn about the interdependence of the nitrogen cycle and the carbon cycle and how this interdependence can influence climate.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • Describe the biological, physical and chemical oceanic processes that absorb, transport and store carbon in the oceans.
  • Describe the role of phytoplankton and the microbial loop in maintaining the oceanic biological pump.
  • Describe how the oceanic carbon cycle and the oceanic nitrogen cycle are interdependent.
  • Describe how the ocean biosphere can influence climate.
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Overview and Teaching Materials

Detailed overview of what students will do in each lab activity, how long it will take, and what materials are required to complete the lab.

In Part A: Students use videos and interactives to explore how carbon moves into and around the ocean. They focus on the ocean's biological pump - a biosphere driven process that transfers carbon from the sea-atmosphere interface all the way down to the deep ocean sediments.

Time estimate: 1-2 50 minute class periods

In Part B: Students explore the role of phytoplankton in the oceanic uptake of carbon in greater depth by analyzing conditions and locations for the grwoth of phytoplankton blooms. They view a NASA video on "Phytoplankton: Ocean's Green Machines" and analyze satellite visualizations to determine geographical, seasonal and decadal changes in phytoplankton populations. Finally, they explore the role of nitrogen as a limiting factor for phytoplankton blooms and the biological pump's capacity to move carbon down to the deep ocean for long term storage.

Time estimate 1-2 50 minute class periods


Printable Materials

Download and print files needed for each lab activity, including images, data tables, and Stop and Think questions.
To download one of the PDF or Word files below, right-click (control-click on a Mac) the link and choose "Save File As" or "Save Link As."

  • Stop and Think Questions


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    and
    Lab 6 Stop and Think Questions PDF


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  • Suggested Answers


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    to Stop and Think Questions

Teaching Notes and Tips

General recommendations for classroom implementation.


General Recommendations:

  • If unfamiliar with a hands-on activity in this Lab, consider a practice run before implementation.
  • Print out any paper-based materials before starting the lab.
  • Have students keep a lab notebook or journal to record important notes, questions, data and findings.
  • Consider FLIPPING parts of the lessons. This will save you class time and reduce the need to have computer access in your classroom.
  • Discussion questions, Checking In questions and Stop and Think questions can be adapted and used in a variety of ways based on teachers' needs. For example, some questions might make great "DO Now" activities as students enter the classroom or great "exit quizzes" as students leave.
  • You may want to spend time projecting graphs and important images on the board and going over the elements (e.g. units of measure, variables on axis, trends, color schemes etc) with them.
  • In many of the Optional Extensions sections throughout the carbon cycle module, students are prompted to "research the latest research" on important carbon cycle topics pertinent to the lab section they are working in. Rich conversations can ensue when students go to ScienceDaily and/or Phys.org - News and Articles on Science and Technology to find abstracts of new research that supports, contradicts or enhances current understanding on how the carbon cycle works.
In Part A:

You may want to consider growing some algae (e.g. Chlorella and/or Diatoms.) in your classroom so students can visualize their color and the size. You can order algae from a biosupply house or you can collect some in a local pond. You grow algae in bottles of mineral water with a tiny bit of fertilizer. You also may want to consider allowing students to view algae samples under a microscope.

You can also do a simple demo of dropping vinegar on sea shells and limestone to demonstrate the production of CO2 and then ask students where they think the carbon atoms in the evolved CO2 comes from.

In Part B:

Consider using NOAA's View Data Exploration Tool in the Optional Extensions section at the bottom of the Part B page. Students can investigate variables such as chlorophyll and nitrate data from NOAA's vast archives of satellites, climate models and observation tools. For example, your students could track changes in nitrates and chlorophyll in the North Atlantic Phytoplankton Bloom over time. When you open the tool, make sure you take the Video Tour. NOTE: This tool works best on computers and not tablets.

Student Notebooks

Suggestions for how to use Student Notebooks for Lab 6.
  • Have students write down the learning objectives for Lab 6.
  • Drawings and notes from videos, animations, discussions and activities
  • Have students record answers to all Stop and Think questions.
  • Have students record answers to Discussion questions.
  • Have students record diagrams they have drawn, with labels and a short description of what the diagram represents.
  • Have students record important hands-on or minds-on activity components. This could include research questions, data, tables, observations, drawings, graphs, and conclusions.
  • Have students write down any questions they still have about the content covered in this lab.
  • Assessment

    There are several options for assessment of student understanding of material introduced in this lab. Choose from the following list, or create your own assessments.
    There are several options for assessments of students understanding of material produced in this Lab. Teachers can choose from the following list or create their own assessments.
    1. Assess student understanding of topics addressed in this investigation by grading their written responses to the Stop and Think questions or by using Stop and Think questions as part of whole-class or small group discussions.
    2. Written Test for
      Lab 6


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      Answer
      Key


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    3. Anything that students create such as graphs, diagrams,and conclusions would serve as good assessments.

    Science Standards

    Lab 6 supports following Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

    Science and Engineering Practices

    4. Analyzing and Interpreting Data


    Disciplinary Core Ideas

    ESS2.A Earth's Materials and Systems

    LS2.B Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer

    LS2.A Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems


    Cross-Cutting Concepts

    1. Patterns

    2. Cause and effect

    5. Energy and Matter

    Examples of how students engage with the standards:

    Go to Next Generation Science Standards.

    Additional Resources

    Explore background information and content extensions related to Lab 6.

    Background Information

    Content Extension

    • Consider using NOAA's View Data Exploration Tool in the Optional Extensions section at the bottom of the Part B page. Students can investigate variables such as chlorophyll and nitrate data from NOAA's vast archives of satellites, climate models and observation tools. For example, your students could track changes in nitrates and chlorophyll in the North Atlantic Phytoplankton Bloom over time. When you open the tool, make sure you take the Video Tour.
    • Have students do the "Research the latest research" activity described in the Optional Extension section of the student pages in Part B by using combinations of the following tags: carbon cycle, oceans, oceans biological pump, phytoplankton, ocean microbial loop, nitrogen cycle, ocean microbes etc. Challenge them to find research that connects organisms that are part of the biological pump to climate: Here are two examples:
    • Some phytoplankton blooms create toxins that can be deadly to animals and humans in addition to causing oxygen depleted dead zones along coasts, creating havoc with fishing industries. Have students research harmful algal blooms (HABs). This Wiki article has a lot of information and further links. Algal Blooms

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