Ocean Circulation

Petra Dekens, San Francisco State University
Author Profile
Initial Publication Date: June 9, 2013 | Reviewed: July 21, 2015


In this lab students explore data for examining both surface and deep ocean circulation. It is done in a lab setting and usually takes ~2.5 hours.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



Undergraduate general education course in oceanography. Most students are freshmen or sophomores and are not science majors. There are no per-requisites for the course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

The lab activity is inquiry based, so little prior knowledge is required. The lab is done in small section with graduate student TA's before ocean circulation in class. However, by the time this topic is covered we have already discussed density.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a stand-along exercise that is done before ocean circulation is covered in class.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • density driven movement of water
  • reinforce connection between salinity, temperature, and density
  • vertical water column features (mixed layer, thermocline)
  • familiarity with buoy data
  • coriolis affect
  • how ocean circulation affects oil spill impacts

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • connecting the data to what they know about ocean characteristics
  • hypothesis forming
  • connecting salinity and temperature data to density and vertical movement

Other skills goals for this activity

  • calculating current speeds
  • plotting data in excel

Description and Teaching Materials

There are two files. One is the lab itself, and the other is a map of the Deepwater horizon spill relative to currents used to answer questions in the lab.
Lab (Microsoft Word 1.7MB Jun9 13)
Deepwater horizon spill (Acrobat (PDF) 270kB Jun9 13)

Teaching Notes and Tips


We have a grading key for the lab.

References and Resources