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Today’s Sea Surface Temperatures

When ocean currents flow over large distances, water of one temperature is carried into zones of another temperature. You may be able see traces of these currents on the map as swaths of color. Tropical storm tracks can also be seen in sea surface temperature (SST) data.

Over the long term, SST data can be used to study annual shifts in ocean currents and temperatures. These changes in ocean conditions are interconnected with seasonal weather patterns such as monsoons and droughts. SST data are also crucial to understanding periodic phenomena like El Niño and long-term climate shifts attributable to global warming.

The data represented on this map come from satellite measurements of microwave energy emitted by ocean waters. Microwave energy—like visible light and infrared radiation—is a form of electromagnetic radiation. Something hot—like a candle flame—gives off visible light. Something cooler than a candle flame—like the ocean’s water—gives off other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The frequencies and intensities of electromagnetic radiation emitted depend on the object’s temperature and its electrical properties. The frequencies of microwaves emitted by the ocean’s water were used to create this map.


 glossary  glossary terms  

Click for definitions of words used on this page:

coral bleaching
El Niño/Southern Oscillation
heat capacity
La Niña
remote sensing

View the full, printable version of the glossary.

Today’s Sea Surface Temperatures - Shown here are measurements of the temperature of the sea surface today, taken by satellite. The strip along the bottom gives the temperature scale, ranging from ice, shown as white, to 90F, shown as dark red. Source: Space Science and Engineering Center: University of Wisconsin-Madison

 questions about the data  

question I see an unusual blob of color–what is that?

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 research connection  

Traditionally, satellite measurements of sea surface temperature used infrared radiation to “see” the temperature of the ocean’s surface. Unfortunately, overlying clouds often blocked the infrared radiation and blocked the view. Finally, in 1997, a satellite was launched that measures sea surface temperature using microwave energy, which passes easily through clouds.

 related sites  

NASA’s Real-Time Microwave Imaging - Shows near-live satellite images of the earth’s surface on a selectable range of “channels,” or frequencies.

Viewing Ocean Currents with SST - A technical site containing sea surface temperature images that depict ocean currents.

Tropical Cyclone Watch - Contains still images and animations of hurricanes tracked using sea surface temperature.

Passive Microwave Earth Science Information Partner - Satellite images gathered using the latest space-based passive microwave instruments show wind speed, temperature, and water vapor.

Introduction to Satellite Oceanography - A classroom exercise explains how to learn about the oceans by interpreting infrared satellite images.

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