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Investigating the Ocean: Exploring ecological provinces using satellite imagery and oceanographic cruise data

An original activity by Lindsey Kropuenske and Kevin Arrigo, using satellite data from NASA Earth Observations and oceangraphic cruise data from the United States Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS).


Chlorophyll concentration in Pacific from Google Earth
A screen-shot from Google Earth showing chlorophyll concentrations in the equatorial Pacific. This is the data that students use in the exercise. Details
In this activity, students are split into groups and assigned different ocean regions. These include the Arabian Sea, Equatorial Pacific, North Atantic, and Southern Ocean. Each group uses Google Earth to view NASA satellite chlorophyll imagery and the cruise track of data collected as part of the U.S. Joint Global Ocean Flux Study. At three locations along each cruise track, chlorophyll-temperature-depth (CTD) and bottle data collected as part of the study can be downloaded. Students work with the data to identify oceanographic features as a function of depth and then make simple calculations.

In the second component of the exercise, monthly mean chlorophyll a satellite imagery is also included and students speculate about the annual cycle of physical and biological processes based on that time series. Students compile the results into a presentation for the class. Each group should have different responses to the questions asked and different results for the calculations because each ocean region is very different. This easily leads into a discussion about the major ecological provinces of the ocean and what factors cause variability.

Learning Goals

Content Goals
By the end of this activity, students will be able to:
Skills goals
By the end of this activity, students will be able to:

Context for Use

This activity was designed for an introductory activity in an upper-level Marine Biogeochemistry course, but could be probably be used effectively near the end of an introductory oceanography course as well. Students need to have a basic understanding of currents and other physical oceanographic processes, and perhaps basic nutrient cycling.

Teaching Materials

Student instructions (Microsoft Word 36kB May6 09)
Google Earth: Ross Sea (KMZ File 36.9MB Jul11 08)
Cruise Data: Ross Sea (Excel 48kB Jul11 08)
Google Earth: Equatorial Pacific (KMZ File 37MB Jul11 08)
Cruise Data: Equatorial Pacific (Excel 51kB Jul11 08)
Google Earth: Arabian Sea (KMZ File 37MB Jul11 08)
Cruise Data: Arabian Sea (Excel 49kB Jul11 08)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This exercise is designed for students to work in groups on separate ocean regions. The lab is best started in class and then can be completed by groups out of class. In this case, students were given one week to complete the exercise and make a presentation. Groups work through the Google Earth Field trip making calculations and answering questions based on satellite imagery and the shipboard data then create a powerpoint presentation to give to the entire class. This is not a difficult activity: all calculations and observations can be completed by following the instructions. Synthesizing the information to answer some of the broader questions may be more difficult.The questions are designed to contrast the different regions groups work on and spur questions and discussion after each presentation and after all groups present, so therefore it is important to leave adequate time for discussion/presentation.


References and Resources

Course website with supporting materials
All data was acquired from NASA Earth Observations website


Geoscience:Oceanography:Biological, Geoscience:Oceanography

Resource Type

Datasets and Tools:Datasets with Teaching Activities, Activities

Special Interest

Google Earth, Data, models, or simulations:Data

Grade Level

College Lower (13-14)

Ocean Environments

Surface Waters


Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Oceanography, Teach the Earth:Enhancing your Teaching:Google Earth

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