Tanker Spills

By: Kirstin A. Bittel

2 periods
Preparation Time:
5 minutes making copies

Students will predict the course of flow of an oil spill taking into consideration ocean currents and density.

Purpose – Application piece where students predict the route of an oil spill using knowledge of ocean currents.

Students will be able to:
1. Predict the flow of an oil spill and depict it on a map.
2. Explain the predicted route of the oil spill using knowledge of ocean currents in a short presentation to their peers.

National Science Education Standard:
CONTENT STANDARD D: Earth and Space Science

• Earth systems have internal and external sources of energy, both of which create heat. The sun is the major external source of energy. Two primary sources of internal energy are the decay of radioactive isotopes and the gravitational energy from the earth’s original formation.

• Heating of earth’s surface and atmosphere by the sun drives convection within the atmosphere and oceans, producing winds and ocean currents.

• Global climate is determined by energy transfer from the sun at and near the earth’s surface. This energy transfer is influenced by dynamic processes such as cloud cover and the earth’s rotation, and static conditions such as the position of mountain ranges and oceans.


• Movement of matter between reservoirs is driven by the earth’s internal and external sources of energy. These movements are often accompanied by a change in the physical and chemical properties of the matter. Carbon, for example, occurs in carbonate rocks such as limestone, in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide gas, in water as dissolved carbon dioxide, and in all organisms as complex molecules that control the chemistry of life.

Teacher Background
No specific background is necessary, but the site below contains great information about oil spills and provides links to other sites.
General Questions about Oil Spills

Related and Resource Websites
Comparing the Worst Oil Spills













1. The lesson starts with a discussion with students about the complexity of ocean currents. Ask them how a small change in one location might affect another region. If need be, introduce how the Gulf Stream can affect climates of Western Europe. The Gulf Stream moves warm water from the coast of North America past the British Isles, Iceland, and Norway. This warm water body is responsible for the more temperate climate experienced by the regions of the northwestern Europe coastline than those experienced at similar latitudes.

2. You may wish to have students look up the average temperatures on the western coastal areas of the British Isles and Norway and compare them to other locations at a similar latitude. Any change in the Gulf Stream could affect the climates of those countries.

3. Remind students that while there are many ocean names, there is really one world ocean and what happens in one spot may affect other areas seemingly far removed.

4. Divide the class into groups and distribute the information on one of the major oil tanker spills from the handout.

5. Groups will be responsible to predict where the oil from the spill might have migrated. Drawing upon the earlier lessons, students use their understanding of surface and deep ocean currents to predict the movement of the oil spill.

6. Give the groups 20 minutes to complete their work using maps and their notes as aids.

7. Students should share their findings with the class. Presentations should address the following questions: Where did the oil spill originate? Where did it most likely flow? What countries were directly involved?

8. Discuss the world-wide ramifications and repercussions of oil spills in different regions of the world. Where can spills occur that don’t spread to too many other places? Where can they happen that causes them to spread to many locations around the globe?

Embedded Assessment
Can students plan an experiment that tests only one variable at a time? Do students conduct multiple trials? Can students draw valid conclusions? Can students discuss the implications of their findings as they relate to ocean currents?


PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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