Your Own El Nino

This activity allows students to make El Nino in a container, but it might work better as a teacher demonstration. The introduction and information provided describe El Nino, its processes and its effects on weather elsewhere in the world.

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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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Teaching Tips

Teaching Tips

Consider not giving the students the handout first - instead give them the instructions and have them describe what they are observing. Observation is especially important because the diagram in the instructions misleadingly shows the red oil on the bottom, below the water. (This can be a great moment to show that observation is what matters in science more than written instructions.)

Before starting, a teacher may have students orient themselves geographically, labeling the ocean and drawing a compass rose on paper under the clear container and labeling the ends of the container with the continents and countries on the east and west. West coasts touch the eastern Pacific ocean!

Using oil to represent warm surface water, students or the teacher can turn on the dryer and see it pile up in the "west" then turn it OFF to start and El Nino, and watch the oil move east--on and off, back and forth. The demo can sit between periods and be used over and over. Students cannot see a "thermocline" unless a good deal of oil is used, and even then it is a simple meeting of surfaces not a cline. Upwelling is a little difficult to see, especially if the water is too blue. Clean up requires plenty of good dishwashing detergent.

To skip the oil, a teacher may find it easier to use very salty, ice water (not yet dyed) to represent cold deep water, and a much smaller quantity of warmed fresh water, dyed red, to represent the surface water. Best results for adding the warm to the cold came from carefully tipping the dish of warm water onto the inside edge of the container, just above the cold water. The funnel in the diagram is not necessary. Let it settle for a moment and then simply stick the little bottle of blue down into the bottom of the cold layer and give just one or two small squirts.

As the blue spreads, students can distinguish the actual thermocline, where blue and red don't mix. Then use the hairdryer (lowest settings) to represent the usual trade winds. Observe the red surface water deeper in the "west." Then make a point that turning the winds OFF represents the El Nino event starting. Have them see the return of the red water to the "east," the deeper thermocline.

Experiment with light substances (bread crumbs, oatmeal flakes) that hover low in the water to represent nutrients. The upwelling nutrients were the hardest to see, and may best be visualized by the upward plume of blue color from the bottom of the container. This only works for a few minutes before the waters equalize in temperature and mix. The surface flow is not as easy to see as with the oil. Clean up involves only rinsing.