EarthLabs for Educators > Hurricanes > Lab 2: Hurricane Anatomy

Lab 2: Hurricane Anatomy

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

Summary and Learning Objectives

Students view and explore a variety of different hurricane visualizations: movies of satellite imagery (visible and IR); composite images with rainfall intensity, wind circulation, temperature; cross sectional composites; radar imagery. Based upon their analysis of the images, they identify basic hurricanes structure, wind circulation patterns, precipitation patterns. Next, they compare their interpretation and labeling of the images with textbook or Internet derived diagrams of hurricane structure and refine their interpretation and labeling. To conclude, students are presented with images of a southern hemisphere tropical cyclone that they contrast and compare to northern hemisphere cyclones.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • Describe the various kinds of information collected by different types of satellite instruments.
  • Recognize the physical structures, wind circulation patterns, precipitation patterns, life history, etc. of hurricanes.
  • Formulate questions and testable hypotheses about hurricane structure based upon qualitative analysis of satellite imagery.
  • Compare and contrast northern and southern hemisphere tropical cyclones.

Open the Student Lab ยป

Oblique satellite view of Hurricane Katrina.
Oblique satellite view of Hurricane Katrina.[reuse info]
Provenance: NOAA Satellite and Information Service.
Reuse: This item is in the public domain and maybe reused freely without restriction.

Context for Use

This activity is an introduction to the internal structure of hurricanes. 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. Ideally, each student would have access to their own computer for this activity, but it is possible to have students working in groups and sharing computers.

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials Open student activity in a new window

The students should receive a copy of the activity sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 52kB Sep20 07) then be allowed to work through the lab at their own pace. (A word processing version (Microsoft Word 40kB Sep20 07) of the activity sheet is also available.)

There are 3 parts to the lab. In Part A, students watch some short videos that demonstrate data that researcher acquire from satellites that allow them to study hurricanes from orbit. Part B gives students a look inside the clouds of a hurricane to begin to understand the processes involved in developing and maintaining these storms. Finally in Part C, students look at cyclones that form in the Southern Hemisphere and compare them to what they have learned about hurricanes in the Northern Hemisphere.

Printable Materials

  • Activity Sheet (PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 52kB Sep20 07) and Word (Microsoft Word 40kB Sep20 07))
  • Answer 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.

  • Zip File ( 165kB Jan16 08) of all Printable Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

With two exceptions, all the videos in this lab open with the QuickTime player. One of the exceptions is a NASA Flash animation and the other is an animated gif, both of which should open normally in the web browser.

There are some quantitative questions in this lab. Students are expected to do some unit conversions and simple algebraic manipulations. Instructors should be ready to assist students who need additional help with these skills. Check out the Additional Resources section below for links that might be useful in helping students with these issues.


All of the students work and answers should be done on the activity sheet that was handed out at the beginning of the lab. Here is 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.

with example answers to the questions in the lab.

State and National Science Teaching Standards

California Science Teaching Standards met by this activity

Earth Science - Energy in the Earth System

5. Heating of Earth's surface and atmosphere by the sun drives convection within the atmosphere and oceans, producing winds and ocean currents. As a basis for understanding this concept:
a. Students know how differential heating of Earth results in circulation patterns in the atmosphere and oceans that globally distribute the heat.

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:
d. Formulate explanations by using logic and evidence.

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

Earth and Space Science - Energy in the Earth System

1.3 The transfer of energy through radiation, conduction, and convection contributes to global atmospheric processes.
1.4 Unequal heating of Earth and the Coriolis effect influence global circulation patterns and impact Massachusetts weather and climate.
1.6 Conditions associated with frontal boundaries and cyclonic storms and their impact on human affairs.
1.8 Ground-based observations, satellite data, and computer models are used to demonstrate interconnected Earth systems.

Applicable New York Core Curricula

Physical Setting/Earth Science (PDF - 135 Kb)

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.
2.1c: Weather patterns become evident when weather variables are observed, measured, and recorded. These variables include air temperature, air pressure, moisture (relative humidity and dewpoint), precipitation (rain, snow, hail, sleet, etc.), wind speed and direction, and cloud cover.
2.1e: Weather variables are interrelated.
2.1g: Weather variables can be represented in a variety of formats including radar and satellite images, weather maps (including station models, isobars, and fronts), atmospheric cross-sections, and computer models.
2.1h: Atmospheric moisture, temperature and pressure distributions; jet streams, wind; air masses and frontal boundaries; and the movement of cyclonic systems and associated tornadoes, thunderstorms, and hurricanes occur in observable patterns. Loss of property, personal injury, and loss of life can be reduced by effective emergency preparedness.
Standard 6 - Interconnectedness: Common Themes
Key Idea 5: Identifying patterns of change is necessary for making predictions about future behavior and conditions.
Standard 7 - Interdisciplinary Problem Solving
Key Idea 1: The knowledge and skills of mathematics, science, and technology are used together to make informed decisions and solve problems, especially those relating to issues of science/technology/society, consumer decision making, design, and inquiry into phenomena.

Applicable North Carolina Earth and Space Science Standards

Competency Goal 5: The learner will build an understanding of the dynamics and composition of the atmosphere and its local and global processes influencing climate and air quality.

5.03 Analyze weather systems:
  • Movement.
5.04 Analyze atmospheric pressure:
  • Planetary wind systems.
  • Pressure cells.
5.05 Analyze air masses and the life cycle of weather systems:
  • Air masses.
  • Hazardous weather.
5.06 Evaluate meteorological observing, analysis, and prediction:
  • Worldwide observing systems.
  • Meteorological data depiction.

Applicable Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS)

112.44. Environmental Systems.

(c) Knowledge and skills:
(8) Science concepts. The student knows that environments change. The student is expected to:
(A) analyze and describe the effects on environments of events such as fires, hurricanes, deforestation, mining, population growth, and municipal development;

112.49. Geology, Meteorology, and Oceanography.

(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)

Understandings about scientific inquiry
12ASI2.3 Scientists rely on technology to enhance the gathering and manipulation of data. New techniques and tools provide new evidence to guide inquiry and new methods to gather data, thereby contributing to the advance of science. The accuracy and precision of the data, and therefore the quality of the exploration, depends on the technology used.

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

Background Information (pre-teaching)

Units, or Dimensional Analysis: This page written by Kenny Felder of NC State University briefly explains the concept of units, and the use of dimensional analysis to convert from one unit system to another. This is a useful resource for students or instructors who need some additional background on the quantitative skills that will be used in this lab.

Content Extension

  • Hurricane Visualization Collection: You might use this collection of satellite images and visualizations to illustrate how these violent weather systems form and function, as well as their effects on the natural and human landscapes.
  • Investigating Hurricane Katrina In Your Classroom: This collection can provide you with digital resources and teaching ideas on various components of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The collection is designed to provide scientific information and resources to help students understand the science behind the storm. Topics include the geology and geography of the region, the climate, the human impacts and developments in the regions, natural resources, the aftermath of the storm, hurricane science and history and effects on human health.