Hurricanes and Heat Transfer

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

Summary and Learning Objectives

In this activity students investigate how hurricanes transfer heat by conducting hands-on experiments.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • Students will conduct simple lab experiments to gain first-hand experience with the transfer of heat in fluid systems.
  • Students will work effectively in groups to conduct experiments and analyze the results.

Open the Student Lab »

Context for Use

In this lab students work in groups to conduct simple laboratory experiments. 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. There are six stations that the groups will rotate between so, depending on your class length, each station should take between 8 and 10 minutes. The lab requires common lab equipment like Bunsen burners and having it set up in a space designed for laboratory work is recommended. One piece of uncommon equipment is also called for in the form of an infrared thermometer for Station 1. More information about this item can be found in the Teaching Notes and Tips section below.

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

This lab requires a fair amount of pre-class setup. You will need to put together the different exercises at different stations. There are 6 stations in the lab so you will need to divide your class into 6 teams. (Ideally of 3-5 students each, but class size may not allow it.) The teams will move from station to station, completing the exercises cooperatively as they go.

There are printable Station Cards (Acrobat (PDF) 526kB Jun22 22) of materials and instructions that you can place at each station to help lead students through the exercises. The directions are also on the

that you will hand out at the beginning of the lab. There is also a to help you in assessing student performance on the lab. (The activity sheet is also available in a .)

Station 1: Adiabatic Expansion

Based on an activity by Dorothy Merritts of Franklin and Marshall College.
Station Card (Acrobat (PDF) 500kB Jun22 22)


  • Can of compressed air
  • Infrared thermometer
  • Graph paper (Acrobat (PDF) 16kB Nov29 07)


  1. Using the digital thermometer, take the initial temperature of the can and record it on the table on the activity sheet. Take all measurements with the laser dot in the center of the can.
  2. Keeping the thermometer pointed at the can, allow gas to spray out of the can for 1 minute. Record the temperature reading every 10 seconds.
  3. After 1 minute, stop spraying gas from the can. Continue to take temperature readings at 10 second intervals for another 2 minutes.
  4. Use the data you have collected to create a graph of temperature versus time.

Station 2: Convection Cell

Station Card (Acrobat (PDF) 500kB Jun22 22)


  • Clear, 500 mL beaker filled with water containing pencil shavings or parsley flakes settled on the bottom
  • Bunsen burner and striker
  • Hand and eye protection (safety glasses and oven mitt or tongs, etc.)
  • Blue and red colored pencils


  1. Set the beaker on the ring stand.
  2. Wearing hand and eye protection, use the striker to light the burner.
  3. Position the burner so that the flame is near one edge, not centered.
  4. Note what happens to the shavings in the water after you put the burner under the beaker. Draw the behavior of the particles on the activity sheet using the colored pencils. Use the red pencil to show where the particles are moving upwards and blue for where they are moving downward.
  5. Extinguish the burner and, using hand protection, move the beaker of water to the side to cool. (Be careful not to touch the ring stand as it will be hot.)

Station 3: Measuring Dew Point by Evaporation

Station Card (Acrobat (PDF) 500kB Jun22 22)


  • 2 identical thermometers (Fahrenheit)
  • 1" piece of cotton shoelace
  • Piece of cardboard big enough to accommodate the two thermometers
  • Tape
  • Marker
  • Table of Relative Humidity and Dew Point appropriate for your elevation


  1. Attach the two thermometers side by side on the cardboard with tape.
  2. Label one thermometer "wet-bulb" and the other "dry-bulb." (This step will not need to be repeated after the first group.)
  3. Wet the piece of shoelace thoroughly and slip it over the bulb of the wet-bulb thermometer.
  4. Gently wave the assembly back and forth until the temperature reading on the wet-bulb side has stabilized. (Make sure the thermometers are attached securely!)
  5. Record the final temperature readings from both thermometers.
  6. Disassemble the apparatus in preparation for the next group.
  7. Calculate the Dew Point using the table.

Station 4: Measurement of Dew Point by Condensation

Beaker with Thermometer
Station Card (Acrobat (PDF) 500kB Jun22 22)


  • 250 mL beaker of room temperature water
  • Bucket of crushed ice
  • Thermometer (Fahrenheit)
  • Stir-stick or spoon


  1. Put the thermometer into the beaker of water and record the initial temperature.
  2. Begin adding crushed ice to the water to slowly lower its temperature.
  3. Stir the water gently to make sure that the temperature is even over the whole beaker. Don't stir with the thermometer. It might break.
  4. Observe the side of the beaker and record the temperature at which the first signs of moisture condensation occur.

Station 5: Energy Calculation

Station Card (Acrobat (PDF) 500kB Jun22 22)


  • Color print outs of sea surface temperature before (Acrobat (PDF) 531kB Jun22 22) and after (Acrobat (PDF) 532kB Jun22 22) Hurricane Dennis in 2005.
  • Ruler
  • Calculator


  1. Compare the images of sea surface temperature
  2. Estimate the area of water that was visibly cooled
  3. Based on some assumptions, use the area to estimate the volume of water that was cooled.
  4. Calculate the amount of heat absorbed by Hurricane Dennis from that portion of the Gulf of Mexico.

Station 6: Science Article Review

Station Card (Acrobat (PDF) 526kB Jun22 22)


Copies of these news articles:


  1. Everyone in the group should pick an article to read. Everyone should take a different one unless there are more group members than articles.
  2. Spend the first few minutes reading your article and then write a paragraph summary (on your activity sheet) of what the main points of the article were and what you learned from it.
  3. When everyone is finished, each person should spend 1 minute telling the rest of the group about the article and fielding any questions their group-mates might have about the material.
  4. Keep an eye on the time so that everyone gets a chance to share what they learned!
  5. In your own words, write a couple of sentences based on the summary that your group-mates give of their articles.
  6. Leave the articles for the other groups to use when you move on to your next lab station.

Printable Materials

  • Activity Sheet ( and )
  • All Station Cards (Acrobat (PDF) 526kB Jun22 22)
  • Station 1 Card (Acrobat (PDF) 500kB Jun22 22)
  • Station 2 Card (Acrobat (PDF) 500kB Jun22 22)
  • Station 3 Card (Acrobat (PDF) 500kB Jun22 22)
  • Station 4 Card (Acrobat (PDF) 500kB Jun22 22)
  • Station 5 Card (Acrobat (PDF) 500kB Jun22 22)
  • Station 6 Card (Acrobat (PDF) 526kB Jun22 22)
  • Graph Paper - 2 squares per cm (Acrobat (PDF) 16kB Nov29 07)
  • Gulf SST before Dennis (Acrobat (PDF) 531kB Jun22 22)
  • Gulf SST after Dennis (Acrobat (PDF) 532kB Jun22 22)
  • of all Printable Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

The instructor will need to be moving around the room troubleshooting issues with equipment, although most of the materials in this lab are very simple. The instructor should also be aware of how the groups are working together.

Below you will find specific notes or suggestions for each of the stations in this lab.

Station 1

Have a new can of compressed gas for each group so that everyone starts with a can at room temperature.

Be sure students are pointing the laser dot at the center of the can while taking measurements. This will give them the best measurement accuracy.

Station 2

The day before conducting the lab, fill the beakers with water and put a small amount of pencil shavings or parsley flakes on top. Over night they should settle to the bottom of the beaker. Have a separate beaker for each group so that they all get to see the convection start from scratch. The larger sized beakers make the convection easier to see.

Only add a small amount of particles to the water. A large amount of shavings will cause clumping on the bottom of the beaker and reduce the visibility of the circulation.

Be sure to talk to the students about safety regarding the burners and that they wear the hand and eye protection during the activity.

Station 3

Be sure to find out what the elevation is at your location so that you can give the students the proper chart to use on this activity.

Note that the National Weather Service tables of relative humidity and dew point are in °F. Be sure to use thermometers that read in °F as well when using these tables.

The piece of cardboard should be sized to accommodate the thermometers you have available with room for the students to label both.

Regular tennis shoe laces are hollow which will enable them to be slipped directly over the bulb of the wet thermometer. Make sure that students do it this way and don't just wrap the lace around bulb.

Station 4

Each group should use a new beaker of water so that they each start from room temperature.

Use small or medium beakers for this activity so that the amount of time needed is shorter.

Station 5

Estimating the area of cooling in the image may give some students pause. They may have difficulty with converting to km using the scale bar or figuring out how to come up with an estimated area. In the first case, have them measure the scale bar with their ruler so that they can convert any measurements from the image directly into km before making calculations. In the second case, you might share with them that the cooled area resembles a right triangle and they could make an estimate using that knowledge.

Station 6

If you have large group sizes, you may need to provide more than one copy of each article so that everyone has one to read.


Collect the activity sheets and grade on effort and accuracy. You may also wish to have a part of the grade for the lab (10-15% or so) be based on how well the teams work together. If you choose this route, be sure to check out the Starting Point module on Cooperative Learning for pointers.

State and National Science Teaching Standards

Additional Resources

Pedagogic Considerations

If you are unfamiliar with having students working in groups, take a look at the Starting Point website on Cooperative Learning.

Content Extension

There is an extensive amount of more advanced information on the thermodynamics of heat engines available on the web. One example of such sources is Heat Engines - Wikipedia.

Here is a short list of additional activities that could be done to extend or supplement activities in this lab.