Teaching Notes

Example Output

Note: This chapter was retired in October 2018. The visualization tool (My World GIS) is no longer supported.
Example Output
Map and SST anomaly data displayed on a My World GIS map. Click on image for a larger view.
Sea Surface Temperature (SST) anomalies for December 1997 displayed in My World GIS. Red indicates above average temperatures compared to average SST temperatures for December data averaged over the years 1982-1998.

Grade Level

This chapter is most appropriate for students in grades 7-12.

Learning Goals

After completing this chapter, students will be able to:

  • describe the sea surface temperature (SST) pattern observed during normal, El Niño and La Niña years in the equatorial Pacific Ocean;
  • download, install and use My World GIS to analyze SST data;
  • download gridded SST and other datasets from the PMEL online THREDDS data server;
  • create SST anomaly maps for any given time period from 1982—1998;
  • use My World child windows to visualize and compare normal, El Niño and La Niña years; and
  • determine the presence/absence of an El Niño/La Niña event for any given year from 1982-1998.


My World GIS is a powerful tool that allows students to create their own maps displaying many types of information. As students perform data analysis and observe the patterns within the data, they can begin to form their own hypotheses regarding data patterns, anomalies and trends. This case study emphasizes pattern detection and the concept of an anomaly. Teachers can choose to use this lesson as a lead-in to a discussion of the greater impacts of the ocean on weather and climate. Some possible links to curricular topics include: the El Niño Cycle and Oceans.

Background Information

In the opening section of the lesson, students will look at data from a broad range of years and over a large geographic area. From this examination, they will develop an understanding of the SST associated with a "normal" year, before contrasting that pattern with either an El Niño or La Niña year. Links to additional background information can be found in the Going Further section of this chapter.

Instructional Strategies

In order to capture the students' attention, begin the lesson with either a brief excerpt from a news event or video clip of an El Niño induced event such as a flood or drought.

Learning Contexts

This lesson can provide an in-depth look at ocean temperature fluctuations and the role of the ocean as a climate driver. Climate and weather are important in our daily lives. When the climatic patterns of a region change dramatically, all other parts of that region's ecosystem must adapt. This lesson is appropriate for Earth, biological, physical and social science contexts.

Science Standards

The following National Science Education Standards are supported by this chapter:

Grades 5-8

8ASI1.3 Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data. The use of tools and techniques, including mathematics, will be guided by the question asked and the investigations students design. The use of computers for the collection, summary, and display of evidence is part of this standard. Students should be able to access, gather, store, retrieve, and organize data, using hardware and software designed for these purposes.

8ASI1.4 Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence. Students should base their explanation on what they observed, and as they develop cognitive skills, they should be able to differentiate explanation from description--providing causes for effects and establishing relationships based on evidence and logical argument. This standard requires a subject knowledge base so the students can effectively conduct investigations, because developing explanations establishes connections between the content of science and the contexts within which students develop new knowledge.

Grades 9-12

12ASI1.3 Use technology and mathematics to improve investigations and communications. A variety of technologies, such as hand tools, measuring instruments, and calculators, should be an integral component of scientific investigations. The use of computers for the collection, analysis, and display of data is also a part of this standard. Mathematics plays an essential role in all aspects of an inquiry. For example, measurement is used for posing questions, formulas are used for developing explanations, and charts and graphs are used for communicating results.

12ASI1.4 Formulate and revise scientific explanations and models using logic and evidence. Student inquiries should culminate in formulating an explanation or model. Models should be physical, conceptual, and mathematical. In the process of answering the questions, the students should engage in discussions and arguments that result in the revision of their explanations. These discussions should be based on scientific knowledge, the use of logic, and evidence from their investigation.

12DESS1.3 Heating of Earth's surface and atmosphere by the sun drives convection within the atmosphere and oceans, producing winds and ocean currents.

12DESS3.3 Interactions among the solid Earth, the oceans, the atmosphere, and organisms have resulted in the ongoing evolution of the earth system. We can observe some changes such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on a human time scale, but many processes such as mountain building and plate movements take place over hundreds of millions of years.

Geography Standards

The following U.S. National Geography Standards are supported by this chapter:

The World in Spatial Terms
1. How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective.
2. How to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments in a spatial context.
3. How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth's surface.

Physical Systems
7. The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth's surface

Time Required

Three to five 45-minute periods are estimated as necessary to complete the Case Study and the content in the chapter.

This lesson can be adapted for decreased time usage in the classroom by downloading the datasets ahead of time. In this case, the objective of the lesson would be for students to learn how to calculate an anomaly. Another time saving adaptation for the classroom is to download the following project file which contains all the layers needed for this case study. PMEL_case_study.m3vz ( 9.1MB Jun5 07)

The following project file has all layers and selections created in the step-by-step instructions and can be used to assess student work. The project file can also be used if access to the live server is not possible. PMEL_case_study_completed.m3vz ( 13.1MB Jun12 07)