Climate Change and Atlantic Hurricanes: A GIS Inquiry

Chris Van de Ven
Albion College
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Students make hypotheses about how hurricane numbers, locations, or intensities have been changing, and then use hurricane tracks, wind speed, barometric pressure, and dates to test their hypotheses.

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This is for an undergraduate geology course and can be used as a multi-day class activity or a single lab activity. The exercise will be first tested on for non-majors honors students, mostly 1st and 2nd year students.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

A computer lab is required, but no specific skills are assumed. It would help if the instructor had some experience with GIS. Depending on their hypotheses, some of their hypothesis testing can be done using spreadsheets (like Excel).

Students should have a basic understanding of hurricanes and the magnitude and types of climate change that have already occurred.

How the activity is situated in the course

This would fit as a stand-alone exercise after a basic introduction to hurricanes and climate change.


Content/concepts goals for this activity


  • Understanding trends in hurricanes over time, relationships between wind speed, barometric pressure, and category.
  • Identifying where hurricanes typically form.
Concepts: Students should understand that despite common perceptions, it is not a simple matter to say that hurricanes are increasing in number or intensity over the last few decades.

Other concept goals: Students should be able to strategize how pose and then address and answer a question in order to test a hypothesis.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Development of questions and strategies to test hypotheses. Students need to develop a hypothesis and, using the available data, test their hypothesis. Later they will have the opportunity to suggest additional data and/or methods that would be useful to test their hypotheses.

Other skills goals for this activity

I hope to expose students to GIS without having them get lost in using the software (that would be a goal for the instructor, not the students).

Description of the activity/assignment

Students are asked to make a general hypothesis about whether Atlantic hurricane have been changing over time in response to recent climate change. It is expected that at an introductory level with only the most basic background instruction, students will focus on numbers, locations, or intensities of hurricanes. Example hypotheses might be
  1. The numbers of hurricanes are increasing (or decreasing)
  2. Hurricanes are becoming more intense
  3. Hurricanes are forming in new locations
  4. Hurricane season is lengthening
They are then asked to develop more pointed questions that they can test. Some example questions for each hypothesis are given below:
Hypothesis 1 might lead to questions like "More hurricanes (or tropical storms) are forming each year" or "More hurricanes are striking land each year."
Hypothesis 2 might lead to questions such as "The maximum wind speed for hurricanes is increasing" or "The minimum barometric pressure is decreasing."
Hypothesis 3 might lead to questions like "Hurricanes are forming further north."
Hypothesis 4 might lead to questions such as "Hurricanes are forming earlier and later."
To answer these questions would require students to understand some background about hurricanes, like how many typically occur in the past (which leads to questions about data collection and observing hurricanes), how hurricane intensity is measured, or at what latitudes hurricanes typically form.

Then they are given a table or map data (derived from NOAA GIS data of hurricane tracks and intensity) to test their hypotheses.

The results of their inquiries and data collection will be shared with the class as parts of small groups initially, and will culminate as a small group presentation.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students will have achieved their goals if they...
  1. Develop appropriate pointed questions that they can use to answer their more general hypothesis
  2. Successfully use the data to address those questions

At the end of the exercise, they will present their results - essentially to answer their questions and report on whether their hypothesis was correct (and give evidence for that). In their final presentation, they will also be asked to evaluate their level of certainty, and what additional information and data they would need to become more certain. Future exercises could involve examining some additional data to continue the inquiry.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Download hurricane track data from the NOAA.