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.

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

  • MS-PS3-4. Plan an investigation to determine the relationships among the energy transferred, the type of matter, the mass, and the change in the average kinetic energy of the particles as measured by the temperature of the sample.

Specific Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  1. Explain the difference between heat capacity of water and the heat capacity of air.
  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 video—Use the balloon experiment from the NASA/JPL Climate Kids to demonstrate the difference between heat capacity of air vs. water. Rather than show the video to the students, inject inquiry into the investigation by presenting the demonstration or lab to the students without introduction, and ask them to explain to each other what is happening. Solicit student suggestions for how they could modify the experiment to further test their ideas.
  • EPA’s Ocean Heat Content—Ocean heat is an indicator for climate change. This page describes trends in the amount of heat stored in the world’s oceans between 1955 and 2015.
  • 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)


  • Explain how the balloon model demonstrates the difference between the heat capacity of water vs. air.
  • The EPA’s Ocean Heat Content graphic plots three different datasets on the graph. How does looking at results from more than one set of data help scientists understand patterns?
  • Why is ocean heat increasing?
  • What are today’s SST conditions?