Activity: Make Currents in a Pan

Have you ever wondered how ocean currents work? Here’s a chance to learn a little about the process right in your own home or classroom! (If you can’t do the activity for yourself, you can watch it being done in the video at the bottom of this page. Start at 19:25.)

Clouds over the Atlantic Ocean on a sunny day

CC BY-SA 3.0

Gather Your Materials

  • Wide container filled with a couple inches of warm water
  • Food coloring (a few drops)
  • A couple of rocks (or cups, if you can’t find any rocks)
  • A bunch of ice cubes (6-8 is probably a good number)

Follow These Steps

  1. Take the container and fill it with some warm (almost hot) water and some rocks. The pan represents the ocean, and the rocks represent continents.
  2. Add a few drops of food coloring to the water (spaced out). What happens to the food coloring? It’s not really moving around a lot, is it?
  3. Carefully add the ice cubes to the water. Now what’s happening? Look at how the water is moving and what happens when it hits the rocks. You should be seeing the colored water swirl and move in patterns throughout the pan and around the rocks, just like currents!

What Happened?

World map showing ocean currents

Wikimedia Commons – Public domain

In the pan, the cold, melted water from the ice cubes is denser than the warm water that we started with: It has more water molecules packed into a smaller space than the warmer water in the pan. Because it’s denser, the cold water sinks and moves along the bottom of the pan until it eventually warms up and rises to the surface.

Just like the pan of water, the oceans of the Earth are not the same temperature all over. The north and south poles are colder than the equator. The cold water of the poles is denser so it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and starts to move towards the equator, where the most sunlight hits the Earth’s surface. As the water moves, it warms up. When this happens, the warm water then rises to the surface of the ocean.

This creates large-scale deep currents. These currents are responsible for moving large amounts of water from one part of the world to another!

Learn More

Want to learn more about deep ocean currents? Watch the video below!

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