El Niño Teaching Box

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Map showing the increase in sea surface temperatures off the western coast of Peru during an El Niño event

This Teaching Box combines readings and activities that utilize data to build student understanding of the changes that happen to the Pacific Ocean and atmosphere during an El Niño event.

UCAR Center for Science Education presents the El Niño Teaching Box! We have collected high quality resources from our program and from other science education programs, sequenced them to help build student understanding, and aligned the collection with Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core, and other national standards. Resources have been reviewed by our team of educators.

  • Topic: El Niño
  • Level: Middle and high school
  • How to use this resource: Resources below are sequenced to build student understanding. 

El Niño in the Pacific

Goal: Students will understand the changes that happen to the Pacific Ocean and atmosphere during El Niño events.

Engage students with a story of El Niño’s impacts.

  • An El Niño Fish Tale: Have students read this five-part story to get a sense of the impact El Niño had on vulnerable fisheries in 1972 and learn how the ocean and atmosphere change during an El Niño event. Have students use the El Niño Fish Tale Graphic Organizer Worksheet (pdf) to help them take notes and organize what they learn.  Follow with a class discussion that generates a list of what students learned and what questions they have about El Niño.

Explore El Niño data to understand the pattern of sea surface temperatures.

El Niño Impacts Graphic

  • Transition: Refering to the story, An El Niño Fish Tale, ask why fishermen found less fish during El Niño (because of the change in ocean temperature and upwelling). Tell students that in this next part they will look at data about sea surface temperature to explore how temperatures change in the Pacific during El Niño and how that impacts marine life.
  • Investigating El Nino Using Real Data: Students complete five small activities (from the NOAA Ocean Data Education: NODE Project) to scaffold understanding of how to interpret sea surface temperature data and then explore El Niño using real data. Have students work on their own or in pairs at computers to complete the activities.
    • Level 1: Reading Sea Surface Temperature
    • Level 2: Looking at SST in a Different Way
    • Level 3: Detecting El Nino
    • Level 4: Relating SST to Productivity
    • Level 5: Design Your Own Investigation

Explain what we know about the science of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

  • Have students explore the science of El Niño by reading an overview of the El Niño -Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and related short articles about Upwelling and Teleconnections, or watch NOAA's ClimateBits "El Niño" video Students at the high school level can explore NOAA’s ENSO Blog to gain a deeper understanding of what is happening with ENSO now and the potential impacts of climate change on the cycles.
  • Instruct students to create concept maps to organize the information they learn, focusing on how El Niño events impact (1) air pressure, (2) wind, (3) upwelling, (4) ocean temperature, (5) evaporation, and (6) weather.  Have students write a statement about how each is impacted by El Niño and then draw arrows to illustrate which items affect each other (see the sample concept map at the right). Discuss as a class.

Elaborate with a case study of El Niño impacts.

  • Mission Geography 1 - The Causes and Effects of El Niño: In this case study from NASA (Module 3: Investigation 1), students play the role of Peruvian policy makers, deciding how to allocate the country’s resources in order to manage possible ENSO-related problems. Note that this activity takes five or six 45-minute class periods.
  • My NASA Data: El Niño Lesson: In this activity, students explore the 1997 El Niño event through satellite data to learn the impact of El Niño on local weather patterns. Note that this activity takes one class period.

Evaluate by having students interpret data and draw conclusions based on what they have learned.

  • Sort It Out: El Niño or La Niña is an interactive in which students determine whether the pattern of ocean temperatures suggests El Niño, La Niña or La Nada conditions in data visualizations. Have students articulate their strategy for how to sort the data visualizations to ensure they are aware of their strategy for sorting. Ask students what the colors mean in the visualizations (red and white correlate with warmer water), and whether the pattern is exactly the same or if there is some variability. Have students write a paragraph of instructions for how to sort the images as if they were telling another player how to get the highest score in the game.
  • The Return of El Niño: In this more involved activity (from The Bridge - Virginia Sea Grant) students determine if the changes they see in temperature and precipitation data from 2002-2003 were due to El Niño.

Educational Standards

Next Generation Science Standards

  • Science and Engineering Practices: Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information
  • Disciplinary Core Ideas: MS- ESS2.D Weather and Climate, HS-ESS3: Earth and Human Activity
  • Crosscutting Concepts: Cause and Effect, Stability and Change

Common Core Standards

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.2: Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7-8.3: Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (7.3: how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events) (8.3: through comparisons, analogies, or categories).
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.9-10.2: Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; trace the text's explanation or depiction of a complex process, phenomenon, or concept; provide an accurate summary of the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.3: Analyze how the author unfolds an analysis or series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them.
  • CCSS.MP2: Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
  • CCSS.MP7: Look for and make use of structure.

National Geography Standards

  • 8th Grade 7.1: The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth's surface: The four components of Earth’s physical systems (the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere) are interdependent
  • 8th Grade 8.2: Characteristics and Geographic Distribution of Ecosystems: Physical processes determine the characteristics of ecosystems
  • 8th Grade 14.3: How human actions modify the physical environment: The physical environment can both accommodate and be endangered by human activities
  • 12th Grade 7.1: The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth's surface: The interactions of Earth's physical systems (the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere) vary across space and time.
  • 12th Grade 14.1: How human actions modify the physical environment: Human modifications of the physical environment can have significant global impacts.