Lab 8: Hot Water and Hurricanes

The lab activity described here was created by LuAnn Dahlman and Sarah Hill of TERC for the EarthLabs project.

Summary and Learning Objectives

Students explore issues related to the rapid intensification of hurricanes. They become familiar with the concepts of heat energy and the specific heat of water and interact with animations of sea surface temperature images to identify the Gulf Stream and the Loop Current. Students use the NOAA View Global Data Exploration Tool and Google Earth to explore visualizations of heat content in the Gulf of Mexico just before Hurricane Katrina. They use a Google Earth layer of a plotted path of Katrina with NOAA data visualizations to observe changes in the heat content of Gulf waters as the hurricane passed over it.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • calculate the amount of heat energy absorbed by a given volume of water as its temperature changes;
  • interpret sea surface temperature images and animations to identify warm water ocean currents;
  • interpret image data that show various measures of heat in the Gulf of Mexico before and after Hurricane Katrina; and
  • access and interpret current Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential, Sea Surface Temperature, and Sea Height Anomaly data images.

Open the Student Lab »

Context for Use

This lab should follow the hands-on activities of Lab 7. It requires a computer for every one or two students, and should take one or two class periods to complete. Student computers need to have Google Earth installed and available for use. (Note: If using the Chrome browser, there is an online version available.) Additionally, they need to be able to download and save .kmz files that contain data images.

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

Students are introduced to the concept of specific heat and watch a short video demonstration of a "trick" that depends on the high specific heat of water. They calculate the amount of energy a given volume of water absorbs as its temperature is increased. They also view a video and read a short text about ocean heat and the Gulf Stream from NOAA NESDIS. Students work with the NOAA View Data Exploration Tool to view and animate data for the Loop Current. They use NOAA View to view visual datasets and download kmz files for use with Google Earth to observe and analyze change in various ocean parameters as Katrina passed. Finally, students return to NOAA View to access and view real-time images for tropical cyclone heat potential to assess the current heat conditions of the Gulf of Mexico.

Printable Materials

  • Activity Sheet (PDF (Acrobat (PDF) PRIVATE FILE 114kB Jun22 22) and Word (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) PRIVATE FILE 22kB Jun22 22))

Teaching Notes and Tips

If possible, have students complete Lab 4A to map the path of Hurricane Katrina for themselves in Google Earth and save as a .kmz file before beginning this lab.

If your class has already completed lab 4A and chose different storms' paths, as suggested in the Lab instructions, consider allowing them to use those storms to complete this lab. In that case, students should plan to follow the directions with modifications to obtain the correct dates and data for their storms. Note: NOAA View data only goes back to about 1980 for the data students will be asked to find. If students created paths for storms earlier than 1980, you might want to provide them with the Katrina .kmz file, as described below.

If time is an issue or there is a problem with student work from Lab 4A, there is a pre-completed .kmz file of

containing placemarks and paths for the storm at 18Z as retrieved from HURDAT2, which you could share with students doing this lab.

You may consider having students work in small groups or pairs, or assigning sections of this lab for homework.


You can assess student understanding of topics addressed in this Investigation by grading their responses to the Stop and Think Questions.

State and National Science Teaching Standards

Additional Resources

Content Extension

A paper by Michael P. Erb entitled A Case Study of Hurricane Katrina: Rapid Intensification in the Gulf of Mexico can serve to deepen student understanding following this lab. Students will recognize some of the content they worked with and be exposed to new concepts for documenting the causes of rapid intensification.

NASA Goddard Video Building a Hurricane Season in the Atlantic Ocean' new