Earth System Science

Expand/Collapse Earth System Science


NOVA's Earth system science collection highlights important Earth processes normally invisible to the human eye. The standards-based media resources below expose the intricate web of forces that sustain life on Earth, allowing educators to explore the astonishing beauty and complexity of our dynamic planet with their students.

For additional classroom resources, visit NOVA Labs, a new digital platform where students can actively participate in the scientific process. NOVA Labs participants can take part in real-world investigations by visualizing, analyzing, and sharing the same data that scientists use. Try your hand at classifying clouds and investigating the role they play in severe tropical storms, research solar storms using images from NASA telescopes, or explore ways to make the most of renewable energy sources and use real data to design your own virtual power systems.

  • Water Vapor Fuels Hurricanes

    In this video excerpt from NOVA: “Earth From Space,” data visualizations show what water vapor evaporating from the ocean's surface might look like if you could see it. Aqua, a NASA satellite, uses infrared wavelengths to monitor the oceans and the production of water vapor. The Sun's heat warms ocean water and creates water vapor through the process of evaporation. When water vapor condenses in the atmosphere, it releases heat that helps to fuel storms. Simulations show large cloud formations developing into a powerful hurricane that can impact life on Earth.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Global Ocean Circulation

    In this video from NOVA: “Earth From Space,” learn about patterns of global ocean circulation, which distribute heat around the planet. Differences in the density of water masses drive large-scale ocean currents. Dense water forming over the continental shelf of Antarctica is exported to the adjacent deep ocean, creating streams of very cold water that spread northward along the sea floor into the global oceans. Visualizations show the constant motion and flow of ocean currents. The ocean and the atmosphere are closely connected and are responsible for maintaining Earth's relatively stable climate, providing a hospitable environment for life.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Nutrients from Deep-Sea Vents

    In this video excerpt from NOVA: “Earth From Space,” learn how hydrothermal vents produce mineral-rich water that nourishes organisms. Underwater footage shows mineral-laden water spewing from hydrothermal vents, which nourishes deep-sea ecosystems as well as life near the surface. The nutrients from vents circulate through the oceans over thousands of years and contribute to phytoplankton blooms. Satellite images show changes in the temperature and color of the surface of the ocean off the west coast of South America, indicating a large phytoplankton bloom that is fueled by minerals from Earth's crust and that forms the base of the marine food chain.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Lightning Produces Nitrates

    In this video excerpt from NOVA: “Earth From Space,” learn about the global impact of lightning and how it produces an essential nutrient for living things. Satellite images show the distribution of electrical storms on Earth and the frequency of lightning strikes. Visualizations and narration describe the formation of lightning and its role in the production of nitrate, a vital nutrient for life. This video also explains how rain transports nitrate to the ground, where it is absorbed by plants and becomes a part of the food chain.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Monitoring Earth's Water Vapor

    In this video excerpt from NOVA: “Earth From Space,” observe the global pattern of water vapor circulation and learn how it connects the Sun, oceans, atmosphere, and life. Animations show how satellites in geostationary orbit provide a global view of the movement of water vapor. As water vapor produced near the equator travels toward Earth’s poles, it transports energy and creates weather. Variations in the topography of different regions result in different outcomes (for example, the Asian monsoon, an arid desert, or sweltering conditions).

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Plants Affect the Atmosphere

    In this video excerpt from NOVA: “Earth From Space,” learn how the Amazon rainforest impacts the chemical composition of Earth’s atmosphere throughout the day. Ground instruments, along with spacecraft such as NASA’s Aura satellite, collect data that help scientists analyze Earth’s atmosphere. Computer visualizations show how the process of photosynthesis causes the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere to increase during the day; at night, carbon dioxide levels rise. The dense vegetation of the Amazon rainforest produces about 20 percent of the world’s oxygen, but most of that oxygen is reabsorbed by the rainforest during the night.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • La Niña and Tornado Outbreaks

    In this video excerpt from NOVA: “Deadliest Tornadoes,” examine how the climate phenomenon of La Niña may help set up conditions conducive to large tornado outbreaks. Thermal images show a region of unusually cold sea-surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Peru. This deviation from normal sea-surface temperatures, called La Niña, impacts ocean processes and global weather. Scientist Roger Pielke, Sr. explains how during a La Niña event, the combination of a strong jet stream and moist air in the southeastern United States may provide prime conditions for a particularly dangerous tornado season in 2011. (Pielke was correct, as an unusually high number of tornadoes were reported across the United States in 2011.)

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Sandy and Climate Change

    In this video excerpt from NOVA: “Inside the Megastorm,” learn how Earth's warming climate may have contributed to Hurricane Sandy's devastating impact. Hurricane Sandy was an extremely large storm that followed an unusual path, and its impacts were enhanced by climate change. Climate scientists Radley Horton and Adam Sobel explain how warming temperatures in the Arctic may have shaped a blocking pattern in the jet stream (causing the hurricane to turn toward the United States) and how rising sea levels undeniably contributed to the storm's destructiveness.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Ice-Core Record of Climate

    In this video excerpt from NOVA: “Extreme Ice,” learn about the historical record of climate changes captured in ice. Scientist Jim White discusses how ice cores store information about global climate and how scientists can study them. Graphs constructed from ice-core data illustrate the correlation between increases in greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide) and rises in global temperatures and sea levels. In the past, a major warming event caused a portion of Greenland's ice sheet to melt and raise sea levels. The recent ice-core record shows that as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, current levels of greenhouse gases are the highest they have been in the last half-million years, potentially putting Greenland’s ice sheet in danger of melting more quickly than before.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Volcanism at Yellowstone

    In this video excerpt from NOVA: “Deadliest Volcanoes,” learn why the Yellowstone supervolcano is located in the middle of the North American Plate instead of along a plate boundary, where most volcanoes form. Scientist Bob Smith uses a network of seismometers to record seismic waves from earthquakes and construct a three-dimensional model of the magma located beneath Yellowstone. He uses the model to investigate the geologic process responsible for the active volcanism. Data reveal a mantle plume—a column of magma that is rising from deep within Earth’s interior through the North American Plate to create the active volcanism at Yellowstone.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12

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