EarthLabs for Educators > Hurricanes > Lab 8: Hot Water and Hurricanes

Hot Water and Hurricanes

The lab activity described here was created by LuAnn Dahlman 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 ImageJ, a free image processing application, to explore visualizations of heat content in the Gulf of Mexico just before Hurricane Katrina. They plot the path of Katrina as an overlay on these visualizations and 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;
  • use image processing software to apply different color tables to an animation of the Loop Current;
  • 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 images.

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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 ImageJ, a free image processing application, installed and available for use. Additionally, they need to be able to download and expand compressed .zip 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. Students view a prepared animation of the Gulf Stream current, then download a .zip archive containing an animation of the Loop Current. They use ImageJ, a public domain image processing application, to step through the animation and manipulate its color display. Students download a .zip files that contain animations: the change in Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential as Katrina passed. Finally, students access 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) 40kB Jan20 08) and Word (Microsoft Word 35kB Jan20 08))
  • Suggested Answers

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  • Zip archive of all 3 image animations ( 9.4MB Jan20 08)

Teaching Notes and Tips

If possible, consider downloading and unzipping (expanding) the three image animation files on student computers before students begin. This will save download time and possible issues with expanding the files so that students spend more time with the content. You might prepare the files on a single computer then put them onto a USB memory stick or a writeable CD so they can be distributed to all student computers.


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

California Science Teaching Standards met by this activity

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:

g. Recognize the usefulness and limitations of models and theories as scientific representations of reality.
i. Analyze the locations, sequences, or time intervals that are characteristic of natural phenomena.

Earth Science Content Standards - Grades 9-12

4. Energy enters the Earth system primarily as solar radiation and eventually escapes as heat. As a basis for understanding this concept:

2. Students know the fate of incoming solar radiation in terms of reflection, absorption, and photosynthesis.

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:

1. Students know how differential heating of Earth results in circulation patterns in the atmosphere and oceans that globally distribute the heat.

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

Earth and Space Science - Content Standards

1. Matter and Energy in the Earth System
Central Concepts: The entire Earth system and its various cycles are driven by energy. Earth has both internal and external sources of energy. Two fundamental energy concepts included in the Earth system are gravity and electromagnetism.
1.3 Explain how the transfer of energy through radiation, conduction, and convection contributes to global atmospheric processes, such as storms, winds, and currents.
1.6 Describe the various conditions associated with frontal boundaries and cyclonic storms (e.g., thunderstorms, winter storms [nor'easters], hurricanes, tornadoes) and their impact on human affairs, including storm preparations.

Earth and Space Science - Scientific Inquiry Skills Standards

SIS3. Analyze and interpret results of scientific investigations.
  • Represent data and relationships between and among variables in charts and graphs.
  • Use mathematical operations to analyze and interpret data results.

Earth and Space Science - Mathematical Skills

  • Solve simple algebraic expressions.
  • Convert within a unit (e.g., centimeters to meters).
  • Use scientific notation, where appropriate.
  • Use appropriate metric/standard international (SI) units of measurement for mass (kg); length (m); time (s); force (N); speed (m/s); acceleration (m/s2); and frequency (Hz).
  • Use the Celsius and Kelvin scales.

Applicable New York Core Curricula

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.

2.1b 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.
2.1d Weather variables are measured using instruments such as thermometers, barometers, psychrometers, precipitation gauges, anemometers, and wind vanes.
2.1f Air temperature, dewpoint, cloud formation, and precipitation are affected by the expansion and contraction of air due to vertical atmospheric movement.
2.2 Explain how incoming solar radiation, ocean currents, and land masses affect weather and climate.
2.2b The transfer of heat energy within the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and Earth's surface occurs as the result of radiation, convection, and conduction.

COMPETENCY GOAL 1: The learner will develop abilities necessary to do and understand scientific inquiry in the earth and environmental sciences.

1.02 Design and conduct scientific investigations to answer questions related to earth and environmental science.
  • Analyze and interpret data.

COMPETENCY GOAL 4: The learner will build an understanding of the hydrosphere and its interactions and influences on the lithosphere, the atmosphere, and environmental quality.

4.02 Analyze mechanisms for generating ocean currents and upwelling:

Applicable Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS)

112.42. Integrated Physics and Chemistry.

(c) Knowledge and skills:
(6) Science concepts. The student knows the impact of energy transformations in everyday life. The student is expected to:
(H) analyze the effects of heating and cooling processes in systems such as weather, living, and mechanical.

112.49. Geology, Meteorology, and Oceanography.

(c) Knowledge and skills:
(2) Scientific processes. The student uses scientific methods during field and laboratory investigations. The student is expected to:
(C) organize, analyze, evaluate, make inferences, and predict trends from data;
(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)

Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry

12ASI1.2 Design and conduct scientific investigations. Designing and conducting a scientific investigation requires introduction to the major concepts in the area being investigated, proper equipment, safety precautions, assistance with methodological problems, recommendations for use of technologies, clarification of ideas that guide the inquiry, and scientific knowledge obtained from sources other than the actual investigation. The investigation may also require student clarification of the question, method, controls, and variables; student organization and display of data; student revision of methods and explanations; and a public presentation of the results with a critical response from peers. Regardless of the scientific investigation performed, students must use evidence, apply logic, and construct an argument for their proposed explanations.

12ASI1.3 Use technology and mathematics to improve investigations and communications. A variety of technologies, such as hand tools, measuring instruments, and calculators, should be an integral component of scientific investigations. The use of computers for the collection, analysis, and display of data is also a part of this standard. Mathematics plays an essential role in all aspects of an inquiry. For example, measurement is used for posing questions, formulas are used for developing explanations, and charts and graphs are used for communicating results.

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

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.