NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Education Programs

Earth Space Systems Science

Unit 3: The Hydrosphere

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Earth/Space Systems Science

Anne Arundel County Public Schools.

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The processes that occur in the atmosphere and hydrosphere are connected. The atmosphere and the oceans are the two large fluid reservoirs of planet Earth. Together with the lithosphere, these spheres have produced an environment that led to the development of life on Earth. The hydrosphere is the reservoir for the Earth's water. Students progress through an examination of the Earth's water reservoirs, the great ocean currents, energy flow in the hydrosphere, and the implications for weather and climate. Learning activities lead students through modeling, data collection and analysis, and manipulation and laboratory investigation of the physical processes that govern the cycling of matter and the flow of energy through this system.


Many of these lessons need the CD- The Ocean Planet.  The link is:


Key questions for this unit are:

1.     What are the great water reservoirs of the Earth system?

 2.     Why do ocean currents form?

3.     How does light energy from the sun relate to energy flow in the hydrosphere?

4.     What role does frozen water (the cryosphere) play in the Earth system?

5.     What role does the hydrosphere play in the Earth's climate system?

6.     How does the hydrosphere relate to other Earth systems?


Key Concepts





The Hydrosphere


I.      Structure of the Hydrosphere

II.     Wind-driven Currents

A.    Sea surface temperatures

B.    Coriolis effect

III.   Thermohaline Currents

A.    Density

B.    Temperature

C.    Fresh water vs. salt water

1.     composition of salts

IV.   The Global Water Cycle and the Cryosphere

A.    Latent heat

B.    Ice

C.    Albedo

D.    Sea level

V.   Transfer of Energy

A.    Vertical currents

1.     upwelling and downwelling

a)      productivity- a connection to the biosphere

B.    The Global Conveyer Bel

C.    Weather and Climate

D.    Storms

1.     waves

2.     hurricanes

E.    Introduction to El Nino


Science Core Learning Goals

Goal 1: Skills and Processes

The student will demonstrate ways of thinking and acting inherent in the practice of science.

The student will use the language and instruments of science to collect, organize, interpret, calculate, and communicate information.


Expectation 1.1

The student will explain why curiosity, honesty, openness, and skepticism are highly regarded in science.


1.1.1     The student will recognize that real problems have more than one solution and decisions to accept one solution over another are made on the basis of many issues.

1.1.2     The student will modify or affirm scientific ideas according to accumulated evidence.

1.1.3    The student will critique arguments that are based on faulty, misleading data or on the incomplete use of numbers.


Expectation 1.2

The student will pose scientific questions and suggest experimental approaches to provide answers to questions.


1.2.1     The student will identify meaningful, answerable scientific questions.

1.2.2     The student will pose meaningful, answerable scientific questions.

1.2.3     The student will formulate a working hypothesis.

1.2.4     The student will test a working hypothesis.

1.2.5     The student will select appropriate instruments and materials to conduct an investigation.

1.2.6     The student will identify appropriate methods for conducting an investigation and affirm the need for proper controls in an experiment.

1.2.7     The student will use relationships discovered in the lab to explain phenomena observed outside the laboratory.

1.2.8     The student will defend the need for verifiable data 

Expectation 1.3

The student will carry out scientific investigations effectively and employ the instruments, systems of measurement, and materials of science appropriately.


1.3.3     The student will demonstrate safe handling of the chemicals and materials of science.

 Expectation 1.4

The student will demonstrate that data analysis is a vital aspect of the process of scientific inquiry and communication.


1.4.1     The student will organize data appropriately using techniques such as tables, graphs, and webs (for graphs: axes labeled with appropriate quantities, appropriate units on axes, axes labeled with appropriate intervals, independent and dependent variables on correct axes, appropriate title).

1.4.2     The student will analyze data to make predictions, decisions, or draw conclusions.

1.4.3     The student will use experimental data from various investigators to validate results.

1.4.4     The student will determine the relationships between quantities and develop the mathematical model that describes these relationships.

1.4.5     The student will check graphs to determine that they do not misrepresent results.

1.4.6     The student will describe trends revealed by data.

1.4.7     The student will determine the sources of error that limits the accuracy or precision of experimental results.

1.4.8     The student will use models and computer simulations to extend his/her understanding of scientific concepts.

1.4.9     The student will use analyzed data to confirm, modify, or reject an hypothesis.


Expectation 1.5

The student will use appropriate methods for communicating in writing and orally the processes and results of scientific investigation.


1.5.1     The student will demonstrate the ability to summarize data (measurements/observations).

1.5.2     The student will explain scientific concepts and processes through drawing, writing, and/or oral communication.

1.5.3     The student will produce the visual materials (tables, graphs, and spreadsheets) that will be used for communicating results.

1.5.4    The student will create and/or interpret graphics (scale drawings, photographs, digital images, etc.).

1.5.6     The student will read a technical selection and interpret it appropriately.

1.5.7     The student will use, explain, and/or construct various classification systems.

1.5.8     The student will describe similarities and differences when explaining concepts and/or principles.

1.5.9     The student will communicate conclusions derived through a synthesis of ideas.



Expectation 1.6

The student will use mathematical processes.


1.6.4     The student will manipulate quantities and/or numerical values in algebraic equations.

1.6.5     The student will judge the reasonableness of an answer.


Goal 2: Concepts of Earth/Space

The student will demonstrate the ability to use scientific skills and processes (Core Learning Goal 1) to explain the physical behavior of the environment, earth, and the universe.

Expectation 2.1

The student will use a variety of resources to identify techniques used to investigate Earth and the Universe.


2.1.1.    The student will describe current efforts and technologies used to study the atmosphere, land, and oceans of the Earth.

At least remote sensing from space, undersea exploration, seismology, weather data collection


Expectation 2.3

The student will explain how the transfer of energy affects weather and climate.


2.3.1.    The student will describe heat transfer systems in the atmosphere, on land, and in the oceans.

At least convection, conduction, radiation from space and from within Earth

2.3.2. The student will investigate meteorological phenomena

At least hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, thunderstorms, blizzards

2.3.3. The student will research topics of current concern with regard to climate.

At least greenhouse effect, global warming (or cooling), ocean currents


Expectation 2.4

The student will describe Earth's surface and the theory of plate tectonics and explain the dynamic nature of Earth's crust.


2.4.5    The student will explain the dynamic activity of the earth.


Expectation 2.8

The student will know how to investigate an earth science issue to develop an action plan.


2.8.1 The student will investigate an issue such as climate changes or electric power generation

2.8.2     The student will identify data that are biased.

2.8.3     The student will use tables, charts, and graphs in making oral and written presentations.

2.8.4     The student will know why curiosity, honesty, openness, and skepticism are highly regarded in science.

2.8.5 The student will understand that real problems have more than one solution, and the

   decision to accept one solution over another are made on the basis of many issues.



There is evidence in this response that the student, using analysis, has a full and complete understanding of the question or problem.



There is evidence in this response that the student, using analysis, has a good understanding of the question or problem.


There is evidence in this response that the student has a basic understanding of the question or problem.



There is evidence in this response that the student has some understanding of the question or problem.



There is evidence that the student has no understanding of the question or problem.

Scoring Criteria for Graphs


        The student will organize data appropriately using a graph.


        Level 4

        Data are accurately plotted (90-100%) and the graph includes nine of the ten elements.


        Level 3

        Data are accurately plotted and the graph includes seven of the ten elements,


        Data are mostly accurate (80-89%) and the graph includes nine of the ten elements.


        Level 2

        Data are accurately plotted and the graph includes five of the ten elements,


        Data are generally accurate (70-79%) and the graph includes seven of the ten elements.


        Level 1

        Data are accurately plotted and the graph includes three of the ten elements


        Data are somewhat accurate (60-69%) and the graph includes five of the ten elements.


        Level 0

        Data are inaccurately plotted (<60%) or the graph includes fewer than five elements.




Lesson Planning Organizer





45 minute class periods




Structure  of the Hydrosphere


Describe the structure of the hydrosphere quantitatively in terms of reservoirs, fluxes.


Wind-Driven Ocean Currents


Explain how horizontal currents are generated by observing the effect of wind energy on the movement of water; predict the location of surface currents by analyzing global wind patterns.


Sea Surface Temperatures and Ocean Currents


Determine ocean current patterns by analyzing sea surface temperatures.


Ekman Spiral


Determine the direction of a surface current by interpreting an Ekman spiral.




Explain the effect of Ekman Transport on convergence by performing an investigation; infer the causes of geostrophic currents by constructing a model.


Boundary Currents


Differentiate ocean boundary currents by comparing their characteristics; explain how ocean currents affect coastal climates.




Describe the causes and effects of upwelling by analyzing wind and current patterns.



Supplemental Lesson


Determine factors that influence density of water by performing a laboratory investigation.


Vertical Distribution


The student will be able to infer the effects of salinity and temperature on the vertical distribution of water masses by performing a laboratory investigation.


Temperature and Deep Ocean Currents


Hypothesize the causes of deep ocean currents by performing a laboratory investigation.


Salinity and Deep Ocean Currents


Explain that salinity is a cause of deep ocean currents by performing a laboratory investigation.


Density-Driven Vertical Ocean Currents


Compare wind-driven and thermohaline circulation by completing a Venn diagram; describe how variations in water density influence vertical ocean circulation by analyzing temperature and salinity diagrams.


The Global Water Cycle, Latent Heat, and Energy Flow


Describe how energy flows through the Global Water Cycle by collecting experimental data on latent heat and creating a systems diagram.


The Role of Ice in the  Hydrosphere


Make predictions about the affect of ice sheet mass balance by using a computer spreadsheet program to create a graphical model.


The Global Conveyer Belt


Explain the interaction between surface currents and deep ocean currents by tracing the path of a water mass through the global conveyor belt.




Infer the effect oceans have on climate by comparing coastal and inland climates.


Climate is As Weather Does


Make distinctions between local weather and the same region's climate; predict how a climate could change over time by analyzing past data

18 A

Investigating Climatic Change Through Anomalies

(Honors and GT)


Interpret climate data maps by analyzing global data and data anomalies.


Predicting Hurricanes


Take a position on the usefulness of rainfall data in West Sahel Africa as a predictor of hurricane activity by analyzing data.


Introduction to El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO): Can El Niño Reduce the Severity of Atlantic Storms?


Investigate the possible correlation between El Niño and the frequency with which Atlantic Ocean storms hit the United States coastline by analyzing data.

Approximate Number of 45 minute Lessons