Tropical Cyclones, Sea Surface Temperature, and Beyond

Danielle Schmitt
Princeton University
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The activity will use historical data of sea surface temperature and tropical cyclone origin and/or tracks to identify trends. Students use Arc GIS to explore projected SST changes and predict areas where tropical cyclones could possibly form.

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Introductory oceanography course

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Understanding of what wind is and the cyclonic nature of tropical cyclones as well as what the intertropical convergent zone (ITCZ) is.

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity will likely be taught towards the end of our semester. Possibly as one component of a multiple-week project that links different potential effects of climate change.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Criteria required for the formation of hurricanes, connection between the atmosphere and the ocean, predicted climate change scenarios

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Formulation and testing of hypotheses, ability to identify trends, synthesis of ideas

Other skills goals for this activity

Students will learn to work with Arc GIS.

Description of the activity/assignment

Part 1

The SAGUARO Exploring GIS Investigations for Earth Science curriculum requries the use of ESRI's ArcView® GIS software version 3.0 for Macintosh or 3.2 and higher for PC.

Use ArcGIS and data files from the SAGUARO Project's ( Exploring Tropical Cyclones investigations. After the students are introduced to the program they are asked to determine what criteria are required for the formation of tropical cyclones.

Exploring Tropical Cyclones Unit 1 has a great deal of data for the students to use. The data is presented as layers on a world map. Different features can be turned on and off at will, and layers can be brought in from other units if desired.

Features they can work with are:
  • August SST
  • February SST
  • tropical cyclone tracks
  • locations of tropical cyclone formation for Jun-Sep
  • locations of tropical cyclone formation for Dec-Mar

Part 2 Students are divided into small groups (3-4 students works well) where they compare their findings (including what evidence they used) with the findings of the other group members. Each group is then asked to determine the threshold temperature for tropical cyclone formation as well as to calculate the area of the ocean that has SST equal to or above this threshold temperature (you can have them calculate this for each season, or as a total area including both February and August data).
Part 3 Class discussion of what they have found so far. Introduce them to model predictions of SST for different atmospheric CO2 levels. Propose a 2 degree C increase in tropical SST and ask what they think that will mean. What other factors might influence the formation of tropical cyclones?
Part 4 Assign an article or two (ideally a published peer reviewed article - to introduce them to this type of scientific writing - that is if you can find one that you consider appropriate for your students) that introduces them to other factors required for tropical cyclone formation and predictions of how climate change might affect them. For example an article that discusses the role of wind speed near the surface of the ocean, or vertical wind shear, or one that shows that the threshold temperature is actually predicted to increase by the same magnitude as the SST increase.
Have them write a report that summaries the criteria for cyclogenesis as well as explaining how they would go about predicting where tropical cyclones will form as a result of an increased SST. They do not need to perform all of the tests they propose! They should state what sort of information they would like to obtain and why.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The lab report they turn in will provide the instructor with sufficient evidence of whether or not the goals were met. Ideally you would want to create your own rubric before assigning their report, this way the students have an idea of what, or how much, should be included (for example how many variable should the students discuss in their report.)

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