Rising Seas

Education Modules > Module 3 > High School > Rising Seas > Science Concepts

Science Concepts—Ocean Temperature

Summary: Water has a much higher heat capacity than air, and the ocean absorbs 90% of the heat energy trapped by greenhouse gases. As the planet warms, the amount of heat stored in the world's oceans increases. This topic guide provides resources that support student learning about ocean heat capacity and how ocean heat is an indicator of climate change. Students also examine sea surface temperature measurements to visualize how the Earth's temperature fluctuates with seasons.

Concepts to teach:


  1. The ocean absorbs heat from the atmosphere.
  2. Sea surface temperature normally varies according to season.
  3. Climate change is causing an increase in ocean heat content.

Standards: NGSS Performance Expectations

  • HS-ESS2-4. Use a model to describe how variations in the flow of energy into and out of Earth’s systems result in changes in climate.
  • HS-ESS2-5. Plan and conduct an investigation of the properties of water and its effects on Earth materials and surface processes.

Specific Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  1. Explain the difference between heat capacity of water and the heat capacity of air, sand or other materials.
  2. Identify natural seasonal variability in ocean temperatures.
  3. Use data to demonstrate how ocean heat content is an indicator for climate change.

Activity Links and Resources:

  • Heat Capacity Demonstration experiment—This lesson plan from the Environmental Initiative at Lehigh University compares the heat capacities of water and sand. This activity could be used as a demonstration, or conducted by students in groups.
    • Extension: Allow students to design their own experiments to compare the heat capacity of water and another substance (air, earth materials).
  • EPA's Ocean Heat Content—Ocean heat is an indicator for climate change. This webpage describes trends in the amount of heat stored in the world's oceans between 1955 and 2012.
  • NOAA's Global Science Investigator—Use false color Sea Surface Temperature (SST) images to visualize seasonal patterns of ocean temperatures 2000-2006
  • What are today's SST conditions? Check the earth.nullschool website for a visualization of global weather conditions forecast by supercomputers (updated every 3 hours)


  • The Heat Capacity Demonstration experiment includes assessment questions at the end of the lesson.
  • Why does the EPA's Ocean Heat Content graphic use three different datasets?
  • Pause the Global Science Investigator animation. Can you figure out which season it is in the Northern Hemisphere by looking at the sea surface temperature?
  • What is the relationship between the data showing seasonal sea surface temperature variation 2000-2006 and data showing an increase ocean heat content between 1955 to 2012? How do these data contribute to scientists' understanding of global climate change?