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Estimating Primary Production in the Oceans from Satellite Data

This page authored by Lindsey Kropuenske, based on an original activity by Kevin Arrigo, Stanford University. The original activity was modified by Lindsey Kropuenske and Kevin Arrigo.


In this computer lab, students use satellite imagery, daylength information, and phytoplankton physiology models to calculate annual primary production for an assigned ocean region.

Satellite data is obtained from the NASA Earth Observation website. Students use the analysis tool to determine chlorophyll concentration and sea surface temperature. They also receive a day-length calculator and are asked to model light transmission through the water column. Using step-by-step instructions and proviede equations relating phytoplankton physiology to irradiance and temperature students calculate carbon uptake at discreet locations in the water column. The second half of the exercise involves scaling up to the entire water column, region, and season. Students present their work to the class and evaluate their result using scientific literature. Differences between regions are then discussed by the class.

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Learning Goals

After completing this activity, students will be able to:
  1. Utilize web-based datasets to access and download ocean data;
  2. Manipulate data within Excel
  3. Build a comprehensive picture of primary productivity in the world's oceans

Context for Use

This activity is one of four that is part of upper-level undergraduate course called Marine Biogeochemistry. It is done near the middle of the course, after students covered nutrient cycling in the oceans.

Teaching Materials

Directions for Primary Production Activity (Microsoft Word 1.1MB Sep29 08)
This word document contains detailed instructions for students to follow to download and plot their data.

Spreadsheet for calculating daylength (Excel 20kB Sep29 08)
This is an Excel spreadsheet that students use to calculate daylength as described in the directions.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity makes extensive use of Excel spreadsheets. It is assumed that students have some knowledge of how to use the program, including downloading and importing data, making plots, and using formulas.


Students are assessed on the basis of their presentation.

References and Resources

NEO (NASA Earth Observations) Search page for downloading ocean data