The Ocean's Role in Weather and Climate



The ocean covers more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. The ocean plays a major role in regulating the weather and climate of the planet. These materials will help you understand the factors that impact the Earth's weather and climate, and how changes in temperature or air circulation are part of complex, long-term cycles. Understanding the influence of ocean conditions on the Earth’s climate and monitoring changes in ocean conditions are key to predicting climate change.

Classroom Resources

This professional development section provides an understanding of the complex interactions between the ocean, weather, and climate. These resources present information on the water cycle, including real-time and animated data of surface and deep ocean currents. Activities and lesson plans explain the causes of ocean currents, and the interaction of ocean density, atmospheric winds, and Earth’s rotation. Real-time weather and climate data show how meteorologists record and forecast the weather. Satellite and radar imagery provide a visual understanding of convection in the ocean, the atmosphere and their interrelatedness.

Teacher Tutorials

The tutorials, cooperatively developed by NOAA scientists and National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) pedagogic experts, are designed to help teachers understand ocean, climate and weather connections based on the science literacy goals in the National Standards. Each tutorial focuses on a key content idea, contains interactive simulations and embedded questions.

Global Climate Patterns

This tutorial explores global weather and climate patterns, focusing on why different conditions exist in specific areas. The Earth’s weather patterns, which consist of different conditions of temperature, precipitation, humidity, wind, air pressure, etc., result in various climate zones across the globe. Weather and climate are the result of the transfer of energy from the sun at and near the surface of the Earth. Solar radiation heats land masses, the ocean, and air differently, resulting in the constant transfer of energy across the globe. Transfer of thermal energy at the boundaries between the atmosphere, land masses, and the ocean are influenced by dynamic processes such as cloud cover, and relatively static conditions such as the position of mountain ranges and the ocean. This transfer of thermal energy results in layers of different temperatures and densities in both the ocean and atmosphere. The action of gravitational force on regions of different density causes these layers to rise or fall, forming convection currents (cells). This circulation, influenced by the rotation of the Earth, produces winds and ocean currents.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Explain why the temperature of the ocean does not generally fluctuate as dramatically as the temperature of the land.
  • Describe the relationship between density of liquids and gases and their temperatures.
  • Describe the evolution of a typical reef system.
  • Explain how a difference in density of different layers/portions of a fluid will cause internal currents (rising and falling of the fluid).
  • Explain the cause of predictable wind patterns along the coastal regions of large land masses.
  • Describe how the Coriolis effect determines the direction of the movement of air and water currents.
  • List the major variables that affect the transfer of energy through the atmosphere.
  • Provide an example showing how the transfer of energy affects weather and climate.
  • Explain how convection relates to weather, including its role in the development of circulation patterns.

Global Precipitation and Energy

This tutorial explores the distribution of water and energy on Earth. The cycling of water in and out of the atmosphere and ocean affects the Earth’s climates by influencing patterns of precipitation and by transferring energy between the ocean and the atmosphere. As water moves through the water cycle, it evaporates from the Earth’s surface, rises and cools, condenses into rain, snow, or ice, and falls back to the surface. The water falling on land collects in rivers and lakes, soil, and porous layers of rock, and much of it eventually flows back into the ocean. The water cycle connects the ocean to all of the Earth’s water reservoirs by evaporation and precipitation. The ocean loses thermal energy due to the evaporation of water. This energy transfer drives atmospheric circulation as water moves to the atmosphere as vapor and eventually condenses, releasing thermal energy to the surrounding air.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Outline the basic steps in the water cycle in terms of density, energy of the water, and the relative molecular arrangement and motion in each phase.
  • Describe how energy is transferred to the atmosphere by heating from the ocean and by the evaporation of water and its subsequent condensation.
  • Identify the sun as the energy source that drives atmospheric circulation and the movement of masses of air and water from one place on Earth to another (through convection).
  • List sources for the water cycle and identify the largest source.
  • Explain the relationship between water, temperature, the amount of water evaporated into the atmosphere (and subsequently condensed), and the energy of the atmosphere at or near the location of evaporation.

Global Circulation Patterns

This tutorial explores ocean circulation patterns and the effect that the ocean has on climate. Water in the ocean holds a lot of thermal energy (more than an equal amount of land). Throughout the ocean there is a global circulation system that transfers this thermal energy across the Earth. The shape of the ocean basins and adjacent land masses influence the path of circulation. As ocean currents transfer thermal energy to various locations, the temperature of the atmosphere above the ocean is affected. For example, the condensation of water that has been evaporated from warm seas provides the energy for hurricanes and cyclones. When the pattern of thermal energy released into the atmosphere changes, global weather patterns are affected. An example of a large-scale impact such as this is the El Niño Southern Oscillation, which changes the pattern of thermal energy released into the atmosphere in the Pacific.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Explain how the ocean might influence and affect local weather and climate, given a specific location (on the planet near the ocean) and the local ocean currents.
  • Describe the cause of hurricanes and explain why they usually occur within specific regions during certain times of the year.
  • Explain how changes in ocean temperatures (over a period of months) affect factors that influence weather patterns.
  • List the major variables that affect the transfer of energy through the ocean.

Changing Climate

This tutorial explores how Earth’s climate has changed in the past and how it may change in the future. Climate change may occur as a result of changes in the Earth's surface, atmosphere, and ocean. Such changes may be abrupt (such as gas and dust from volcanic eruptions or asteroid impacts) or may occur over very long times (such as changes in landscape or increases in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere). Even relatively small changes in atmospheric or ocean content and/or temperature can have widespread effects on climate if the change lasts long enough. Since the industrial revolution, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased at an unprecedented rate. Though climate change and changes in the composition of the ocean and atmosphere are natural, present modifications far exceed natural rates.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Explain the role that phenomena such as volcanic eruptions or asteroids have in changing climate.
  • Describe the type of atmospheric conditions and weather-related data that can be obtained from ice core and deep-sea sediment records.
  • Describe how a small change in the content of the ocean and atmosphere (such as a rise in carbon dioxide levels) can have significant impacts on global climate.
  • Describe how human activity affects climate.

Web Seminar Archives

In collaboration with the NSTA, NOAA has presented a series of 90-minute, professional development experiences. Through the following link you can view Web seminar archives, download PowerPoint presentations, and access additional resources.

The Ocean's Role in Weather and Climate

This link provides access to two Web seminar archives that focus on the connections among air, sea, and land; the processes by which energy is stored, released and transferred among them; and how our ability to understand and monitor ocean conditions is key to predicting climate change. The first seminar presents the influence of the Atlantic Ocean on climate, from hurricanes to African drought. The second seminar explains how changes in climate affect the Arctic sea ice.



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