Is There a Trend in Hurricane Intensity?

Todd Ellis
SUNY College at Oneonta, Oneonta, NY, USA
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This lab guides students through an examination of the hurricane record to determine if there is a trend in hurricane intensity over the past 40 years and introduces some issues related to statistics and uncertainty.

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This activity is designed for use in a undergraduate class devoted to the study of climate change causes, impacts, and mitigation strategies. It has a prerequisite of introductory environmental science or earth science, but is otherwise not limited to majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

They will be expected to have mastered the basic tenets of climate change science, including what atmospheric/oceanic changes we would expect to see in a global warming scenario. The mechanics of hurricanes will also have been discussed in enough detail to complete the activity.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a stand-alone activity to be offered near the 6th or 7th week after climate change causes has been discussed and we begin our discussion of impacts.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

This activity will help students develop a better understanding of the impacts of climate change, how climate change may be impacting hurricanes, as well as calculating trends and understanding uncertainty.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

This activity will primarily focus on analyzing trends in data and the sources of uncertainty in those trends. It will also involve formulating hypotheses based on expected climate changes, synthesizing how hurricanes form and how climate change might impact them, and evaluating the confidence we have in trends based on uncertain data.

Other skills goals for this activity

Skills goals for this project include importing and analyzing data with the computer (Excel or other software), preparing good graphs of data that are easy to explain and present, and creating a scientific laboratory report communicating the results of the exercise including their own expectations and conclusions, as well as any other questions that the report raises.

Description of the activity/assignment

In essence, this is an opportunity for students to practice calculating trends with uncertainties to draw conclusions about whether or not there is a trend in hurricane intensity. It follows closely with the IPCC AR4 findings, and is guided so that students will know exactly what they have to do - step by step. Please see the attached document for the bulk of the activity. There are some additional instructor's notes that give a little more background on the concepts involved with confidence intervals and trends. There is also an excel file with all of the necessary data already tabulated for the exercise - so you don't need to go find it yourself unless you want to.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students will be able to self-assess by matching their results to some results presented in the textbook by Mann and Kump (Dire Predictions: The Illustrated Guide to the Findings of the IPCC), the IPCC report itself, or lecture. If their plots are not consistent with the given information, they will know that there is something wrong they can fix.

Students will also present their results and thoughts in a laboratory write-up. They will be expected to comment on whether their results are consistent with the IPCC results and their own expectations. They will also provide their own explanations for why they think the trend exists and what the major sources of uncertainty are or were. This write up will also include answers to some of the direct questions that the exercise asks them to consider.

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