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Ocean Circulation

This activity was created by Dr. Karen Grove for use in the Introduction to Oceanography Laboratory course at San Francisco State University. This Starting Point page was Created by Robert MacKay, Clark College .
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Students view and analyze buoy, satellite, temperature vs depth data to learn about ocean circulation and how it is related to atmospheric circulation.

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Learning Goals

  • Learn about drifting buoys and how to plot latitude-longitude buoy position to infer ocean surface currents.
  • Read and interpret satellite image data related to:
    • Surface wind speeds
    • Wave heights
    • Atmospheric water Vapor
    • Ocean sea surface temperatures (SST)
  • Learn about the vertical structure of the ocean from temperature vs. depth plots. (mixed layer, thermocline, and deep water).

Context for Use

This activity is appropriate for an introductory oceanography course or for any geoscience course that includes a section on ocean circulation and structure.

Teaching Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity can be used as a lab or as a homework assignment. It takes students approximately 3 hrs to complete. Smaller segments of this activity along with individual images could also be used for interactive lecture discussion. Introducing basic ideas in class before the assignment is important to help students get started. Students questions related to the completion of this activity help build student interest in classroom discussion.


Online teaching materials contain student activities that can help promote student learning. These activities can also be used to help assess student understanding of key idea and concepts.

References and Resources

Dr. Grove provides references and links to additional resources at the bottom of the first page of this activity. http://geosci.sfsu.edu/courses/geol103/labs/currents/currents.home.html ( This site may be offline. ) .