current model

The ocean interacts closely with the atmosphere. Heat from the sun, evaporative, conduction and emission forces provide energy for ocean movement, while wind and density differences provide momentum. Changes in atmospheric pressure set up wind patterns. Predominant wind patterns are among the main forces which drive  circulation. The shapes of the coastline and bathymetry differences cause changes in direction (meanders) and spin-offs (gyres) from the main current. These gyres are visible in maps of sea surface temperatures of the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic and the California Current.

In this activity, students will explore how wind forces water movement and how land features can change this movement.


To become familiar with the forces which produce the circulation patterns in ocean basins and to predict current patterns or eddy development with variances in bathymetry.



  1. creating the modelIn groups of 3-5, use clay to build a model of the bathymetry of the North Atlantic and/or US West Coast. Use the bathymetric maps in the Student Worksheet or on the web and be sure to include the continental shelf, continental slope, capes, seamounts, and other seafloor features.
  2. Create the shoreline in your container using the clay (no more than 1-2 inches thickness of clay on edges).
  3. Pour in a diluted solution of Convection Fluid to a depth which just covers the subsurface oceanic features.
  4. Use the hair dryer on low or blow through a straw to set up a gentle "wind" blowing from the south to start a current. Make observations on the current patterns that develop.
  5. Change wind direction and speed and observe any changes in the current patterns.
  6. Illustrate your notes on the observations, especially the patterns affected by the shoreline or around surface features (e.g. Cape Hatteras).
  7. When finished, return the Convection Fluid to the container. Remove clay from container and roll into ball.
  8. Answer the questions below, also available in the Student Worksheet.
  9. Optional: Check out this Global Surface Current Animation to compare your model to actual ocean current patterns.
North Atlantic:
Critical Thinking:

Web Links

Lesosn Resources

word iconStudent Worksheet