EarthLabs for Educators > Hurricanes > Lab 7: Hurricanes and Heat Transfer
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This page first made public: Aug 12, 2008

Hurricanes and Heat Transfer

The lab activity described here was created by John McDaris of SERC for the EarthLabs project.

Summary and Learning Objectives

In this activity students investigate how hurricanes transfer heat by conducting hands-on experiments.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • Students will conduct simple lab experiments to gain first-hand experience with the transfer of heat in fluid systems.
  • Students will work effectively in groups to conduct experiments and analyze the results.

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Hurricane Heat Engine
This image from the NASA Conceptual Image Lab is a part of a video that shows how hurricanes act as heat engines powered by warm sea surface temperatures.[reuse info]
Provenance: Image created by the NASA Conceptual Image Lab.
Reuse: This item is in the public domain and maybe reused freely without restriction.

Context for Use

In this lab students work in groups to conduct simple laboratory experiments. It was designed for high school Earth Science students but is also applicable to introductory level students in college Geoscience courses. One 50-60 minute class period is required for the activity. There are six stations that the groups will rotate between so, depending on your class length, each station should take between 8 and 10 minutes. The lab requires common lab equipment like Bunsen burners and having it set up in a space designed for laboratory work is recommended. One piece of uncommon equipment is also called for in the form of an infrared thermometer for Station 1. More information about this item can be found in the Teaching Notes and Tips section below.

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

This lab requires a fair amount of pre-class setup. You will need to put together the different exercises at different stations. There are 6 stations in the lab so you will need to divide your class into 6 teams. (Ideally of 3-5 students each, but class size may not allow it.) The teams will move from station to station, completing the exercises cooperatively as they go.

There are printable Station Cards (Acrobat (PDF) 78kB Jan16 08) of materials and instructions that you can place at each station to help lead students through the exercises. The directions are also on the activity sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 84kB Jan16 08) that you will hand out at the beginning of the lab. There is also a
Grading Sheet

This file is only accessible to verified educators. If you would like access to this file, please enter your email address below. If you are new to the site, you will be asked to complete a short request form. If you have already been verified by the EarthLabs project, you will be taken directly to the file download page.

to help you in assessing student performance on the lab. (The activity sheet is also available in a word processing format (Microsoft Word 101kB Jan16 08).)

Station 1: Adiabatic Expansion

Based on an activity by Dorothy Merritts of Franklin and Marshall College.
Station Card (Acrobat (PDF) 62kB Jan3 08)


  • Can of compressed air
  • Infrared thermometer
  • Graph paper (Acrobat (PDF) 16kB Nov29 07)


  1. Using the digital thermometer, take the initial temperature of the can and record it on the table on the activity sheet. Take all measurements with the laser dot in the center of the can.
  2. Keeping the thermometer pointed at the can, allow gas to spray out of the can for 1 minute. Record the temperature reading every 10 seconds.
  3. After 1 minute, stop spraying gas from the can. Continue to take temperature readings at 10 second intervals for another 2 minutes.
  4. Use the data you have collected to create a graph of temperature versus time.

Station 2: Convection Cell

Station Card (Acrobat (PDF) 62kB Jan3 08)


  • Clear, 500 mL beaker filled with water containing pencil shavings or parsley flakes settled on the bottom
  • Bunsen burner and striker
  • Hand and eye protection (safety glasses and oven mitt or tongs, etc.)
  • Blue and red colored pencils


  1. Set the beaker on the ring stand.
  2. Wearing hand and eye protection, use the striker to light the burner.
  3. Position the burner so that the flame is near one edge, not centered.
  4. Note what happens to the shavings in the water after you put the burner under the beaker. Draw the behavior of the particles on the activity sheet using the colored pencils. Use the red pencil to show where the particles are moving upwards and blue for where they are moving downward.
  5. Extinguish the burner and, using hand protection, move the beaker of water to the side to cool. (Be careful not to touch the ring stand as it will be hot.)

Station 3: Measuring Dew Point by Evaporation

Station Card (Acrobat (PDF) 62kB Jan3 08)


  • 2 identical thermometers (Fahrenheit)
  • 1" piece of cotton shoelace
  • Piece of cardboard big enough to accommodate the two thermometers
  • Tape
  • Marker
  • Table of Relative Humidity and Dew Point appropriate for your elevation


  1. Attach the two thermometers side by side on the cardboard with tape.
  2. Label one thermometer "wet-bulb" and the other "dry-bulb." (This step will not need to be repeated after the first group.)
  3. Wet the piece of shoelace thoroughly and slip it over the bulb of the wet-bulb thermometer.
  4. Gently wave the assembly back and forth until the temperature reading on the wet-bulb side has stabilized. (Make sure the thermometers are attached securely!)
  5. Record the final temperature readings from both thermometers.
  6. Disassemble the apparatus in preparation for the next group.
  7. Calculate the Dew Point using the table.

Station 4: Measurement of Dew Point by Condensation

Beaker with Thermometer
Station Card (Acrobat (PDF) 62kB Jan3 08)


  • 250 mL beaker of room temperature water
  • Bucket of crushed ice
  • Thermometer (Fahrenheit)
  • Stir-stick or spoon


  1. Put the thermometer into the beaker of water and record the initial temperature.
  2. Begin adding crushed ice to the water to slowly lower its temperature.
  3. Stir the water gently to make sure that the temperature is even over the whole beaker. Don't stir with the thermometer. It might break.
  4. Observe the side of the beaker and record the temperature at which the first signs of moisture condensation occur.

Station 5: Energy Calculation

Station Card (Acrobat (PDF) 62kB Jan16 08)


  • Color print outs of sea surface temperature before (Acrobat (PDF) 70kB Jan3 08) and after (Acrobat (PDF) 71kB Jan3 08) Hurricane Dennis in 2005.
  • Ruler
  • Calculator


  1. Compare the images of sea surface temperature
  2. Estimate the area of water that was visibly cooled
  3. Based on some assumptions, use the area to estimate the volume of water that was cooled.
  4. Calculate the amount of heat absorbed by Hurricane Dennis from that portion of the Gulf of Mexico.

Station 6: Science Article Review

Station Card (Acrobat (PDF) 62kB Jan3 08)


Copies of these news articles:


  1. Everyone in the group should pick an article to read. Everyone should take a different one unless there are more group members than articles.
  2. Spend the first few minutes reading your article and then write a paragraph summary (on your activity sheet) of what the main points of the article were and what you learned from it.
  3. When everyone is finished, each person should spend 1 minute telling the rest of the group about the article and fielding any questions their group-mates might have about the material.
  4. Keep an eye on the time so that everyone gets a chance to share what they learned!
  5. In your own words, write a couple of sentences based on the summary that your group-mates give of their articles.
  6. Leave the articles for the other groups to use when you move on to your next lab station.

Printable Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

The instructor will need to be moving around the room troubleshooting issues with equipment, although most of the materials in this lab are very simple. The instructor should also be aware of how the groups are working together.

Below you will find specific notes or suggestions for each of the stations in this lab.

Station 1

Have a new can of compressed gas for each group so that everyone starts with a can at room temperature.

Be sure students are pointing the laser dot at the center of the can while taking measurements. This will give them the best measurement accuracy.

Station 2

The day before conducting the lab, fill the beakers with water and put a small amount of pencil shavings or parsley flakes on top. Over night they should settle to the bottom of the beaker. Have a separate beaker for each group so that they all get to see the convection start from scratch. The larger sized beakers make the convection easier to see.

Only add a small amount of particles to the water. A large amount of shavings will cause clumping on the bottom of the beaker and reduce the visibility of the circulation.

Be sure to talk to the students about safety regarding the burners and that they wear the hand and eye protection during the activity.

Station 3

Be sure to find out what the elevation is at your location so that you can give the students the proper chart to use on this activity.

Note that the National Weather Service tables of relative humidity and dew point are in °F. Be sure to use thermometers that read in °F as well when using these tables.

The piece of cardboard should be sized to accommodate the thermometers you have available with room for the students to label both.

Regular tennis shoe laces are hollow which will enable them to be slipped directly over the bulb of the wet thermometer. Make sure that students do it this way and don't just wrap the lace around bulb.

Station 4

Each group should use a new beaker of water so that they each start from room temperature.

Use small or medium beakers for this activity so that the amount of time needed is shorter.

Station 5

Estimating the area of cooling in the image may give some students pause. They may have difficulty with converting to km using the scale bar or figuring out how to come up with an estimated area. In the first case, have them measure the scale bar with their ruler so that they can convert any measurements from the image directly into km before making calculations. In the second case, you might share with them that the cooled area resembles a right triangle and they could make an estimate using that knowledge.

Station 6

If you have large group sizes, you may need to provide more than one copy of each article so that everyone has one to read.


Collect the activity sheets and grade on effort and accuracy. You may also wish to have a part of the grade for the lab (10-15% or so) be based on how well the teams work together. If you choose this route, be sure to check out the Starting Point module on Cooperative Learning for pointers.

State and National Science Teaching Standards

California Science Teaching Standards met by this activity

Investigation and Experimentation Standards

1. Scientific progress is made by asking meaningful questions and conducting careful investigations. As a basis for understanding this concept and addressing the content in the other four strands, students should develop their own questions and perform investigations. Students will:

c. Identify possible reasons for inconsistent results, such as sources of error or uncontrolled conditions.
d. Formulate explanations by using logic and evidence.
l. Analyze situations and solve problems that require combining and applying concepts from more than one area of science.

Applicable Massachusetts Science and Technology Standards (PDF - 1.3 Mb)

Earth and Space Science - Content Standards

1. Matter and Energy in the Earth System
Central Concepts: The entire Earth system and its various cycles are driven by energy. Earth has both internal and external sources of energy. Two fundamental energy concepts included in the Earth system are gravity and electromagnetism.
1.3 Explain how the transfer of energy through radiation, conduction, and convection contributes to global atmospheric processes, such as storms, winds, and currents.
1.6 Describe the various conditions associated with frontal boundaries and cyclonic storms (e.g., thunderstorms, winter storms [nor'easters], hurricanes, tornadoes) and their impact on human affairs, including storm preparations.

Earth and Space Science - Scientific Inquiry Skills Standards

SIS2. Design and conduct scientific investigations.
  • Properly use instruments, equipment, and materials (e.g., scales, probeware, meter sticks, microscopes, computers) including set-up, calibration (if required), technique, maintenance, and storage.
  • Follow safety guidelines.
SIS3. Analyze and interpret results of scientific investigations.
  • Represent data and relationships between and among variables in charts and graphs.
  • Use mathematical operations to analyze and interpret data results.
  • Assess the reliability of data and identify reasons for inconsistent results, such as sources of error or uncontrolled conditions.

Earth and Space Science - Mathematical Skills

  • Construct and use tables and graphs to interpret data sets.
  • Solve simple algebraic expressions.
  • Measure with accuracy and precision (e.g., length, volume, mass, temperature, time)
  • Convert within a unit (e.g., centimeters to meters).
  • Use scientific notation, where appropriate.
  • Use appropriate metric/standard international (SI) units of measurement for mass (kg); length (m); time (s); force (N); speed (m/s); acceleration (m/s2); and frequency (Hz).
  • Use the Celsius and Kelvin scales.

Applicable New York Core Curricula

STANDARD 1 - Analysis, Inquiry, and Design
Students will use mathematical analysis, scientific inquiry, and engineering design, as appropriate, to pose questions, seek answers, and develop solutions.
Mathematical Analysis - Key Idea 3: Critical thinking skills are used in the solution of mathematical problems.
Scientific Inquiry - Key Idea 3: The observations made while testing proposed explanations, when analyzed using conventional and invented methods, provide new insights into phenomena.

STANDARD 4 - Students will understand and apply scientific concepts, principles, and theories pertaining to the physical setting and living environment and recognize the historical development of ideas in science.
Key Idea 2: Many of the phenomena that we observe on Earth involve interactions among components of air, water, and land.

2.1 Use the concepts of density and heat energy to explain observations of weather patterns, seasonal changes, and the movements of Earth's plates.
2.1b The transfer of heat energy within the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and Earth's interior results in the formation of regions of different densities. These density differences result in motion.
2.1d Weather variables are measured using instruments such as thermometers, barometers, psychrometers, precipitation gauges, anemometers, and wind vanes.
2.1f Air temperature, dewpoint, cloud formation, and precipitation are affected by the expansion and contraction of air due to vertical atmospheric movement.
2.2 Explain how incoming solar radiation, ocean currents, and land masses affect weather and climate.
2.2b The transfer of heat energy within the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and Earth's surface occurs as the result of radiation, convection, and conduction.

COMPETENCY GOAL 1: The learner will develop abilities necessary to do and understand scientific inquiry in the earth and environmental sciences.

1.02 Design and conduct scientific investigations to answer questions related to earth and environmental science.
  • Collect and record data.
  • Analyze and interpret data.
1.04 Apply safety procedures in the laboratory and in field studies.
  • Safely manipulate materials and equipment needed for scientific investigations.

Applicable Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS)

112.42. Integrated Physics and Chemistry.

(c) Knowledge and skills:
(6) Science concepts. The student knows the impact of energy transformations in everyday life. The student is expected to:
(B) investigate and demonstrate the movement of heat through solids, liquids, and gases by convection, conduction, and radiation;
(H) analyze the effects of heating and cooling processes in systems such as weather, living, and mechanical.

112.49. Geology, Meteorology, and Oceanography.

(c) Knowledge and skills:
(2) Scientific processes. The student uses scientific methods during field and laboratory investigations. The student is expected to:
(B) collect data and make measurements with precision;
(C) organize, analyze, evaluate, make inferences, and predict trends from data;
(c) Knowledge and skills:
(13) Science concepts. The student knows the role of energy in governing weather and climate. The student is expected to:
(A) describe the transfer of heat energy at the boundaries between the atmosphere, land masses, and oceans resulting in layers of different temperatures and densities in both the ocean and atmosphere;

Applicable National Science Education Standards (SRI)

Science as Inquiry (12ASI)

Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry

12ASI1.2 Design and conduct scientific investigations. Designing and conducting a scientific investigation requires introduction to the major concepts in the area being investigated, proper equipment, safety precautions, assistance with methodological problems, recommendations for use of technologies, clarification of ideas that guide the inquiry, and scientific knowledge obtained from sources other than the actual investigation. The investigation may also require student clarification of the question, method, controls, and variables; student organization and display of data; student revision of methods and explanations; and a public presentation of the results with a critical response from peers. Regardless of the scientific investigation performed, students must use evidence, apply logic, and construct an argument for their proposed explanations.

12ASI1.3 Use technology and mathematics to improve investigations and communications. A variety of technologies, such as hand tools, measuring instruments, and calculators, should be an integral component of scientific investigations. The use of computers for the collection, analysis, and display of data is also a part of this standard. Mathematics plays an essential role in all aspects of an inquiry. For example, measurement is used for posing questions, formulas are used for developing explanations, and charts and graphs are used for communicating results.

Earth and Space Science (12DESS)

Energy in the earth system

12DESS1.3 Heating of earth's surface and atmosphere by the sun drives convection within the atmosphere and oceans, producing winds and ocean currents.

Additional Resources

Pedagogic Considerations

If you are unfamiliar with having students working in groups, take a look at the Starting Point website on Cooperative Learning.

Content Extension

There is an extensive amount of more advanced information on the thermodynamics of heat engines available on the web. One example of such sources is Heat Engines - Wikipedia.

Here is a short list of additional activities that could be done to extend or suplement activities in this lab.

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