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Grades K-2
This lesson introduces young students to the El Niqo phenomenon by having them do a brief experiment and look at pictures of El Niqo, including some pictures drawn by kindergarten and first grade students who experienced an El Niqo season.
Connections to the Curriculum:
Geography, earth sciences
Connections to the National Geography Standards:
Standard 7: "The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth's surface"
Standard 15: "How physical systems affect human systems"
One to two hours

Materials Required:
  • Computer with Internet access
Students will
  • discuss forms of severe weather;
  • perform a simple experiment to see the effects of water temperature on air temperature and moisture;
  • view an animation of El Niqo;
  • view pictures and read about Florida children's El Niqo experiences; and
  • draw pictures and write about how El Niqo might affect their area, based on a map they've seen on the Internet.
Geographic Skills:

Acquiring Geographic Information
Organizing Geographic Information
Answering Geographic Questions
Analyzing Geographic Information

S u g g e s t e d   P r o c e d u r e
Ask students to name some forms of severe weather, such as thunderstorms or tornadoes. Have they experienced any of these types of weather? If so, what was it like? What did they do? Are there particular times of the year when certain types of weather are more common (e.g., blizzards in the winter)? Do they know why this weather occurs? Tell them that this lesson will teach them about one of the reasons why the weather sometimes gets very strange.
The Franklin Institute's El Niqo: Hot Air over Hot Water page has an experiment in its "Try This" category. This experiment involves having students feel the air temperature over two cups of water. Do this experiment with your class, but make the following modifications:

Bring a thermos full of hot water and several cups; you can then pour hot water into a fresh cup when the original hot water gets too cool.

Have students take turns placing each hand over the two cups simultaneously. They should not touch the water. Ask them what the air above the water feels like: which air feels warmer?

You may use a piece of plastic wrap rather than a mirror. With your students gathered around the table with the water cups, place one piece of wrap on top of each cup for a few seconds. The wrap over the hot water should become moist. Make sure all students can see this moisture on the wrap.

Ask students to imagine that the cups of water represent different parts of the ocean (you might want to label the cups). Which part of the ocean would have warmer air above it? Which would have wetter air? Where would it be most likely to rain?

Write the phrase "El Niqo" on the board, and tell the class the story of how El Niqo was named: Almost five hundred years ago, fishermen in South America (Ecuador and Peru) noticed that every few years, the water became quite warm around Christmas time. This warmer-than-usual water was not very good for fishing. They named this pattern "El Niqo," for the Christ Child, whose birth is celebrated by Christians on Christmas day.

Have students look at the map of the El Niqo ocean current . Explain that the red represents warm water spreading across the Pacific Ocean from Asia to North and South America. This is the same warm current the fishermen noticed.

Explain that when El Niqo comes, many places have weird weather. California, for example, has more rain than usual and sometimes has very bad floods. This happens because the warm water on the surface of the ocean makes the air really warm, just as they have seen in their experiment. This warm air gets wet (as they saw the plastic wrap or mirror get wet). The wet air dumps lots of rain on the land near the coast.

Other places, such as the northern Rocky Mountains, are warmer and drier than usual. This is because the moist air currents don''t make it to that part of the country. Ski resorts in Idaho and Montana worry that there won't be enough snow.

Have students look at the pictures and read about the Florida El Niqo of 1998 at this report from a kindergarten and first grade class . After they've had a chance to browse the students' pictures and descriptions, discuss what El Niqo was like in Florida, and explain that the weather was similar in California and some other parts of the country. Would students have liked living in Florida during this El Niqo event? Why or why not?

Have students look at the Winter Outlook December 2002-February 2003 map . Ask them to find their state and the approximate location of their home town. Then ask them what the weather was predicted to be like in their town during this El Niqo winter. Help them figure out what the map shows about their area.
Suggested Student Assessment:
Have students draw pictures of how El Niqo might impact their area and write captions to describe their pictures.
Extending the Lesson:
For grades 3-5: Explain to the class that El Niqo affects not only North and South America but also other parts of the world. Have them go to PBS NOVA Online: El Niqo's Reach and click on the link to "across the globe." Ask them to click different areas of this map to learn how El Niqo affects different places around the world. Have them take notes on what they learn, and discuss their findings as a class. In what ways are different places affected differently? Why do students think this might be the case?

Ocean Planet: El Niqo is another page they can look at for information about how El Niqo affects different parts of the world.

To help students better understand why El Niqo causes different types of weather phenomena in different places, first have them read about the jet stream at Dan's Wild Weather Page .

Then have them look at the images at the top of the USA Today El Niqo Page . If they place their mouse on top of each image, it explains how the warm El Niqo water causes thunderstorms in the Pacific to move eastwards and how the subsequent thunderstorms disrupt the jet stream.

Discuss these effects with students, and help them understand that the combination of water temperatures and wind patterns (and the fact that water temperature affects air temperature and currents) in different parts of the world means that different weather events will happen.

This lesson is made possible by a generous grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Sanctuary Program.

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