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 »

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 to 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) 1.2MB Jun21 22) then be allowed to work through the lab at their own pace. (A word processing version (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 658kB Jun21 22) 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) 1.2MB Jun21 22) and Word (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 658kB Jun21 22))
  • of all Printable Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

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

with example answers to the questions in the lab.

State and National Science Teaching Standards

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.