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UCAR Science Education Group, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research


3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th


Science, Physics, Earth and Space Sciences

Resource Types

  • Experiment, 20-30 minutes
  • Lesson Plan
  • Article

Regional Focus


Thermal Expansion of Water

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  • In this 20-30 minute experiment, students will see how an increase in water temperature causes an increase in water volume. 
  • Students will learn how increased global temperatures cause the thermal expansion of ocean water, contributing to sea level rise. 
  • This resource consists of a lesson plan, directions for an experiment, and an article. 
Teaching Tips


  • Students can use a lamp to heat the water instead of a bunsen burner.
  • Students can use sunlight to heat the water, resulting in a more realistic example of what happens in the real world.
  • Students can complete the experiment in one class period because it takes less than 45 minutes for the water level to rise significantly.
  • This activity can be a class demonstration or a hands-on experiment.

Additional Prerequisites

  • Students should be familiar with lab rules and safety measures


  • The “Important points to remember” might confuse students. The wording is not scientifically clear: “if this heat from global temperature rise is passed on to the water, water expands and increases in volume.” Another way to write this might be: “as added greenhouse gases cause the lower atmosphere to warm up, some of the heat is passed on to the ocean. The oceans warm up, and the water expands and increases in volume. Warmer ocean temperatures cause global sea levels to increase because water expands when it warms.”
  • This experiment could be used in a lesson about sea level rise or climate change.
  • Other resources on this topic include this video on water's heat capacity, this article on the future of sea level rise, and this lesson on the differences between land ice and sea ice.
Scientist Notes
This resource explains the thermal expansion of seawater. The activity allows students to learn, hypothesize, and draw valid conclusions about the impact of thermal expansion in seawater. This is resource is recommended.
  • Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)
    • ESS2: Earth's Systems
      • HS-ESS2-2 Analyze geoscience data to make the claim that one change to Earth’s surface can create feedbacks that cause changes to other Earth systems.
      • HS-ESS2-5 Plan and conduct an investigation of the properties of water and its effects on Earth materials and surface processes.
    • PS1: Matter and its Interactions
      • MS-PS1-4 Develop a model that predicts and describes changes in particle motion, temperature, and state of a pure substance when thermal energy is added or removed.
      • 5-PS1-1 Develop a model to describe that matter is made of particles too small to be seen.
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