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When is Dinner Served? Predicting the Spring Phytoplankton Bloom in the Gulf of Maine (College Level)

Denise Blaha, denise.blaha@unh.edu, Author
Amy Holt Cline, amy.cline@unh.edu, Author

UNH Coastal Observing Center
Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space
University of New Hampshire

September 23, 2004

Starting Point materials: Brian Welch, St. Olaf College

Author Profile

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


This exercise provides ideas to adapt a chapter from the Earth Exploration Toolbook for use in a college-level introductory geoscience course. This example utilizes GIS and remote sensing techniques to examine seasonal changes in phytoplankton productivity off the coast of Maine. MODIS imagery and a simple image analysis tool are used in the exercise. The techniques and imagery described could be used to study other aspects of the Earth's surface.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

After completing this chapter, users will be able to:
  • Explain the ecological importance of phytoplankton
  • Describe the components that influence a phytoplankton bloom
  • Interpret satellite images in order to correlate buoy data
  • Use the scientific process to predict the onset of the spring bloom based on background data
  • Download and analyze graphs of oceanographic buoy data
  • Identify geographic features in the Gulf of Maine

Context for Use

This Earth Exploration Toolbook exercise was originally written for the high school level. However, the concepts and GIS techniques are appropriate for introductory college level geoscience courses. The site locality in the Gulf of Maine is due to the availability of data, but other coastal sites may also offer similar possibilities.

Teaching Materials

When is Dinner Served? Predicting the Spring Phytoplankton Bloom in the Gulf of Maine - the original comprehensive description and step-by-step instructions for this exercise from the Earth Exploration Toolbook.

Data sources - from the EET chapter. All data used in the exercise are freely available from the specified websites.

What is Excel? - a tutorial on how to use Excel to analyze and plot data

Teaching Notes and Tips

This exercise requires the use of a computer with internet access (to aquire the data) and the use of Microsoft Excel to process and plot the data. Other data analysis software could be used for more robust plotting and curve-fitting options (e.g. Origin, Matlab, etc.). Some students may find the data processing intimidating, especially if they have little or no experience with spreadsheet software.

The EET is aimed primarily at high school level courses. The easiest way to adapt the exercise to the college level is to have the students follow the instructions on their own as a homework assignment or project rather than an in-class exercise. Additionally, the robustness of predictions could be addressed .

Additional ideas to expend the use of the data sets can be found at the "Going Further" page of the EET chapter.


Report of the analysis including imagery, plots of data, and the predicted date of the next plankton bloom. Assessment can be based on the accuracy of the results and how well the students have mastered the data/image analysis methods.

References and Resources

Data sources - from the EET chapter. All data used in the exercise are freely available from the specified websites.


Geoscience:Oceanography, Biology:Ecology:Principles, Geography:Geospatial, Environmental Science:Ecosystems:Ecology

Resource Type

Activities:Lab Activity

Special Interest

Quantitative, GIS, Data, models, or simulations:Data, Remote Sensing

Grade Level

College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level

Quantitative Skills


Earth System Topics

Biosphere, Geography, Biosphere:Ecology, Oceans


Biosphere, Ocean


Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:Intro Geoscience, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:GIS/Remote Sensing, Oceanography, Environmental Science