Science as Inquiry

  • Ability to do scientific inquiry (5-8, 9-12)
  • Understanding of scientific inquiry (5-8, 9-12)

    Earth and Space Science Content

  • Energy in the earth system (9-12)

    Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

  • Populations, resources, and environments (5-8)
  • Environmental quality (9-12)


  • Wind Driven Ocean Circulation

  • Oil spills like that of the recent New Carissa off the coast of Oregon or the notorious Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska are an environmental nightmare. Not only do oil spills affect the wildlife and water quality of the surrounding area, but currents can spread the pollution hundreds if not thousands of miles.

    How can we determine where ocean currents will take this oil pollution? Scientists at the Minerals Management Service are testing different types of buoys to see which ones move most like oil in order to better predict areas at risk following a spill.

    To predict where the nearly 70,000 gallons of oil from the New Carissa may go, use the data from the Athena Ocean Drifter Data website. The latitude and longitude for Coos Bay, Oregon are approximately 43°20' N and 124°25' W, making the Subarctic (Pacific) Current the closest major current to the spill (hint: follow buoy #24418 from 1995 or #15371 from 1996). What areas are at risk of being polluted? What if the spill had occurred elsewhere, for instance close to where you live? (Find latitude and longitude for any location with the website How Far Is It?). What areas would be impacted?

    Another great site for tracking ocean currents is Project Yoto Drifters. Through this project, more than 200 satellite-tracked drifters were deployed into the Caribbean Sea/Gulf of Mexico and tropical Atlantic. In addition, several drifters were released into special interest areas, such as the iceberg drift region of the North Atlantic. Visit the Project YOTO Drifters web page to track your own drifter. Are the drifters behaving as expected? Ocean currents play significant roles in transporting many elements and organisms. What are some of them? How is drifter data useful to scientists?

    For more classroom activities on oil spills, be sure to check the Oil Spill section of our Pollution page.

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