Building a miniature well

Groundwater dynamics in the kitchen.

This activity is suitable for young children who wonder where the tap water comes from. All you need is some sand, an empty toilet paper roll, and some water.

First, you need to build your well. You could dig a hole into a sand-filled bucket and then put in the toilet paper roll, or you can just set the roll into a bucket and then fill sand around it (which is what I did).

Put your empty toilet paper roll in a larger vessel and fill the space around the roll with sand.

Next, you “let it rain” on the sand to replenish the ground water.

Let it “rain” to replenish the groundwater.

After a while, water starts collecting in the well, and the water level rises. It looks pretty yucky at first, clearly the sand I got from the playground is pretty dirty.

After a while, the water starts rising up in the well.

Things to discuss:

  • How will different sands / soils influence the water quality in your well?
  • What could you do to improve the water quality?
  • What effect will torrential downpours (like what I did above) have on the water quality compared to nice and slow summer rain?

And then if you want to go there, you could discuss pollutants in the soil that will have an effect on water quality etc..

And you could actually try different sands / soils on water that you either color, or in which you dissolve other things, or in which you suspend things. But I was too lazy to do this for this post. But I might come back to this experiment for nicer pictures in natural light, but you might have to wait for that until next summer :-(

I really like this demo, it is quick and easy and nice if you don’t feel like digging a massive hole in your garden (which I did not).

Guest post: The mystery of the cold room

Guest post by Kristin Richter!
Today I’m excited to bring to you a guest post from Innsbruck, Austria, written by my friend Kristin Richter. Kristin ran the oceanography lab in Bergen before I took over, and she is a total enabler when it comes to deciding between playing with water, ice and food dye, or doing “real” work. Plus she always has awesome ideas of what else one could try for fun experiences. We just submitted an abstract for a conference together, so keep your fingers crossed for us – you might be able to come see us give a workshop on experiments in oceanography teaching pretty soon! But now, over to Kristin.
A little while ago, I made an interesting experience while presenting some science to students and the general public on the “Day of Alpine Science”  in Innsbruck using hands-on experiments. Actually, my task was to talk about glaciers but being a physical oceanographer I felt like I was on thin ice. Well, glaciers, I thought, hmmm … ice, melting ice, going into the sea, … sea, … sea ice! And I remembered how Mirjam once showed a nice experiment to me and some friends about melting ice in fresh and salt water. And suddenly I was all excited about the idea.
To at least mention the glaciers, I planned to fill two big food boxes with water, have ice float (and melt) in one of the tanks and put ice on top of a big stone (Greenland) in another tank filled with water to show the different impact of melting land ice and sea ice on sea level. Since melting the ice would take a while (especially on a chilly morning outside in early April) I would have enough time to present the “actual” experiment – coloured ice cubes melting in two cups of water – one with freshwater, and the other one with salt water.
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Melting ice. A comparison of sea ice and glaciers melting’s impact on sea level, ice cubes melting in fresh and salt water on the right. Photo by “Forschungsschwerpunkt Alpiner Raum”, University of Innsbruck.

As we expected many groups with many students, I needed a lot of ice. I told the organizers so (“I need a lot of ice, you know, frozen water”) and they said no problem, they will turn on their cooling chamber. The day before, I went there and put tons of water into little cups and ice cube bags into the chamber to freeze over night.The next morning – some hundreds of students had already  arrived and were welcomed in the courtyard – I went to get some ice for the first group. I opened the cooling chamber,… and froze instantly. Not so very much because of the cold temperature but because I was met by lots of ice cube bags and little cups with… water. Like in LIQUID WATER! Cold liquid water, yeah, but still LIQUID! Arrrghhhh, my class was about to begin in a few minutes and I had NO ICE. “Ah, yes”, volunteered the friendly caretaker, “come to think of it, it is just a cooling chamber!”I started panicking, until a colleague pointed out the Sacher Cafe (this is Austria after all) and their ice machine across the road. I never really appreciated ice machines, but that one along with the friendly staff saved the day. Luckily, I brought some colored ice cubes from at home – so I was all set to start.

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Ice melting in fresh water (left) and salt water (right). Photo by “Forschungsschwerpunkt Alpiner Raum”, University of Innsbruck.

And the station was a big success, the students were all interested, asked many questions and were excited about the colored melt water sinking and not sinking. :-)  I even managed to “steal” some students from the neighboring station of my dear meteorology colleagues. That was something I was particularly proud of as they could offer a weather station, lots of fun instruments to play with and a projector to show all of their fancy data on a big screen. (Actually, I also abandoned my station for a while to check out their weather balloon.)

Anyway, I had a lot of fun that day and could definitely relate to Mirjams enthusiasm for this kind of teaching. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to share some of those simple yet cool experiments with interested students. I will bring my own ice though!


Fjord circulation

Tank experiment on a typical circulation in a fjord.

Traditionally, a fjord circulation experiment has been done in GEOF130’s student practicals. Pierre and I recently met up to test-run the experiment before it will be run in this year’s course.

This is the setup of the experiment: A long and narrow tank, filled with salt water, a freshwater source at one end and an outlet at the other end. This sets up a circulation from the head towards the mouth of the fjord close to the surface, and a deep return flow.

Watch the movie below to see how different circulations are set up depending on the depth of the freshwater source. As in the picture, velocity profile 1 is for the case where freshwater is being added close to the surface, and in case 2 the freshwater is being added deeper down.

Progressive waves on a rope

Visualization of progressive waves: wave form and energy move forward while the rope itself stays in place.

When I talked about waves in GEOF130 recently, in order to explain the concept of progressive waves, I showed a drawing from one of the textbooks, where someone was moving a rope such that waves traveled on the rope. The idea was to show that for progressive waves the wave form and energy travel, while the matter itself stays more or less in place, only moving up and down or in circular orbital motions.

The look I got from one of the students for showing that drawing confused me a bit and I am still not sure whether it was a “I have no idea what you are trying to tell me!” or a “Duh! Are we in kindergarden?”, but I think it was probably closer to the former. So from now on I will carry a piece of rope on me to show this in lectures and to have students try themselves.

A wave shape traveling forward on a rope, while the rope itself stays in place.

I filmed a quick video because it was difficult to watch the wave while exciting it myself, but it turns out it is even more difficult to hold a camera more or less steady while exciting waves at the same time, plus the movement is pretty quick even for a camera as awesome as mine. Anyway, if you want to procrastinate learn more about waves, watch this!

Measuring temperature.

Students build thermometers.

As described in this post, I like to have students build “instruments” to measure the most oceanographic properties (temperature, salinity and density). I find that they appreciate oceanographic data much more once they have first-hand experience with how difficult it is to design instruments and make sense of the readings. Over the last two days I described the experiments for salinity and density, today it’s temperature.

Students building thermometers.

Measuring temperature is probably the most difficult of the three properties. Firstly, there are lots of technical difficulties to be overcome. How can we seal the mouth of the bottle around the straw in a way that it is really water tight? How much water do we have to fill in the bottle? Does it matter if there are air bubbles trapped? What if the water level when we fill the bottle is not visible because of the seal? If the straw is clogged up with modeling clay, will we still be able to use it in the instrument? How long does the straw have to be above the seal in order to avoid water spilling out when the temperatures we try to measure become too hot?

Then, there are many problems connected to the actual measurement. If we lift up the thermometer (and hence squeeze the plastic bottle) – how does that influence our reading? Since we have half a liter of water in the thermometer, are we actually measuring the temperature of the water sample, or are we influencing it while trying to measure? How do we come up with a scale for our temperature measurements had I not supplied (mercury-free) thermometers to calibrate the new thermometer with? So many questions to think about and discuss!

Measuring salinity

Students evaporate water to measure the salinity of a water sample.

As described in this post, I like to have students build “instruments” to measure the most oceanographic properties (temperature, salinity and density). I find that they appreciate oceanographic data much more once they have first-hand experience with how difficult it is to design instruments and make sense of the readings. Today I’m presenting two groups that focused on salinity, while yesterday’s group was measuring density.

Students evaporate water to measure the salinity of a water sample.

The students in the course I currently teach were determined to not only evaporate some water to qualitatively look at how much salt was dissolved in the sample, they wanted to do it right. So they set out to measure the vessel, the sample and the remaining salt. But since measuring salinity is really pretty difficult, they ran into a couple of problems. First – my scales were nowhere near good enough to measure the amount of water they could fit into the evaporation cup with any kind of precision. Second, even the amount of water that they could fit took a lot longer to evaporate (or even boil) than anticipated. Third, they realized that even though they could see salt residue in the end, this might not be all the salt that had been there in the beginning, plus there was grime accumulating at the base of the cup, so weighing the cup in the end might not be the best option. But they still learned a lot from that experiment: For example that once the (small quantity of) water was boiling, it became milky very quickly and then turned to crystallized salt almost instantly. Or that in order to use this method, a tea candle is not as suitable as a heat source as a lighter (and there might probably even be even better ones out there).

P.S.: In this course, none of the groups set the wooden tongs on fire! :-)

Measuring density

Students build a device to measure density.

As described in this post, I like to have students build “instruments” to measure the most oceanographic properties (temperature, salinity and density). I find that they appreciate oceanographic data much more once they have first-hand experience with how difficult it is to design instruments and make sense of the readings.

Students designing a hydrometer.

Measuring (relative) density is by no means easy. There are a lot of conceptual things to understand when developing hydrometers – one question that comes up every time is what to mark. The first idea tends be to mark displacement on the cup – either a zero-mark without the hydrometer in the cup and then the water level once the hydrometer is floating in the water, or the level of the bottom of the hydrometer. Which makes it fairly hard to measure other samples than the ones the instrument was initially calibrated with.

The student group working on the task was faced with – and overcame – many difficulties. The straw was top-heavy, so in order to float more or less vertically, it had to be cut down. They had four different test solutions, but they did not know the densities of those solutions, only their salinities, hence they developed their own density scale relative to which they measured the density of their solution. Pretty ingenious!

Tasting sea water reloaded

Doing the “tasting sea water” activity again with a different group of students.

A very good introduction to the concept of salinity is the “tasting sea water” activity. Last time I ran that activity, students were very quick to correctly connect the samples with the correct sampling locations without much discussion going on. This time round, though, there was a lot of discussion. Students quickly sorted samples in order of increasing salinity, but there was no agreement to be found on whether the Baltic or the Arctic should be fresher. Since I only pointed to a location and didn’t specify the depth at which the sample had been taken, some students argued that the Arctic was very fresh at the very top, whereas the Baltic was brackish. Others said that the Baltic was a lot fresher than any oceanic location.

Students tasting four different samples of “sea water” with salinities corresponding to Arctic sea ice, the Baltic sea, the open ocean and the Mediterranean. Samples have to be associated with locations on a map.

In another group, there was a big discussion going on about how in marginal seas, evaporation or precipitation can dominate.

It is always great to see how much you can discuss and learn from an activity as simple as this one!

Internal waves in a bottle

Internal waves are shown in simple 0.5l bottles.

Waves travel on the interface between fluids of different densities and the phase speed of those waves depends on the density difference between the two fluids.


Internal waves on the interface between water (dyed blue) and white spirit.

The simplest way to demonstrate this in class can be seen below – two 0.5l plastic bottles are used, one half-filled with water, the other one filled with half water, half vegetable oil. Waves can very easily be excited by moving the bottles, and it is clearly visible that the waves at the interface between water and oil are a lot slower than the ones on the interface between water and air.

For showing this experiment to larger audiences when people can’t play with the bottles themselves, it really helps to color either the water or the oil layer for greater contrast. See here for different combinations that we tried in connection to forskningsdagene in Bergen.

Incidentally, those internal wave bottles are a great toy. If you don’t have one available but wish you had a paper weight as awesome as mine on your desk, here is a movie for you:

A simple DIY tidal model

Instruction for a very simple DIY tidal model.

Today, we built a very simple DIY tidal model in class. It consists of two sets of tidal bulges: One locked in place relative to the sun on the piece of cardboard that we use as the base, the other one with its very own little moon on a transparency mounted on top. Both sets of tidal bulges are held in place by a split pin and a model earth. Now the sun and moon can be arranged all in one line, or at a 90 degree angle towards each other, or anything in between, and the tidal bulges can be mentally added up. If all goes well, this helps students understand the reasons for the existence of spring and neap tides (and from the feedback I’m getting, everything did go well).

The tidal model. Upper plots: Different constellations of the earth-moon-sun system. Lower plot: the model “in action”.

It is also a great way of introducing the difficulties of tidal prediction on earth. In the model, the whole earth is covered with water, so tidal bulges are always directly “underneath” the sun and the moon, respectively. On Earth, this is hindered by the existence of continents and by friction, among others. Since the little earth in the DIY model has continents on it, this really helps with the discussion of delay in tides, tides being restricted to ocean basins, amphidromic points, declination of the earth etc.. And last not least – these are only two tidal components out of the 56 or so that tidal models use these days. As I said – a _very_ _simple_ DIY tidal model!

Find a printable pdf here (and now the solar tidal bulge is a lot smaller than the one in the picture above for a more realistic model)