Hurricanes: Unit Overview

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Why Study Hurricanes?

Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico on August 28, 2005.  The images was taken by NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES). Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico on August 28, 2005. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Hurricanes are life-threatening, building-flattening, property-flooding storms. They are complex natural phenomena that involve multiple interacting processes, offering real-world reasons to understand concepts such as air pressure and heat transfer. When a hurricane is occurring, the human connection to our planet is real and immediate: land, water, air, and life are all whirled about by these intense storms.

Like scientists, you'll study hurricanes in satellite imagery and visualizations, and do some hands-on experiments. You'll also explore over 150 years of storm data to find out when and where these storms occur. If you're studying hurricanes during hurricane season, you'll be able to monitor the position and status of storms in real time.

Key Questions

  • What is a hurricane? How do they form?
  • When and where do hurricanes occur? Has the frequency and intensity of hurricanes changed over time?
  • What factors influence the strength or intensity of hurricanes?
  • How do warm ocean waters fuel hurricanes?
  • What are the dangers to life and property in a hurricane?

Lab Overviews

1. Exploring Meteorological Monsters
Make an in-depth exploration of an animation that shows the active 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. Discuss your observations and develop questions that you'll be prepared to answer at the end of the unit.
Tools Needed: Animation viewer

2. Hurricane Anatomy
Examine a variety of hurricane visualizations to identify basic storm structures. Explore patterns of wind speed and precipitation.
Tools Needed: Animation viewer

3. Putting Hurricanes on the Calendar
Explore HURDAT, the official record of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean from 1851 through today. Import, sort, and graph a variety of parameters to characterize the historical record of tropical storms and identify the dates for hurricane season.
Tools Needed: Spreadsheet program such as Excel

4. Putting Hurricanes on the Map
Select a storm from the HURDAT database and generate a storm track for it using placemarks in Google Earth. Consult the National Hurricane Center's Summary Report for your storm to explore its effects on people and property. Finally, use one of NOAA's online mapping tools to examine the track and development of hundreds of storms.
Tools Needed: Google Earth, NOAA's Historical Hurricane Viewer

5. All About Air Pressure
Perform a series of hands-on experiments and demonstrations to explore the effects of differences in air pressure.
Tools Needed: Laboratory Equipment

6. Why Keep an Eye on the Barometer?
Compare air pressure and wind speed measurements from Hurricane Katrina and for the entire 2005 hurricane season. From your analysis, estimate the air pressure reading necessary to result in hurricane-force winds.
Tools Needed: Excel

7. Hurricanes and Heat Transfer
Perform quantitative laboratory experiments to investigate physical processes of heat transfer and phase transitions.
Tools Needed: Laboratory Equipment

8. Hot Water and Hurricanes
Examine the ocean's role in powering hurricanes. Explore images of sea surface temperature and sea surface height as measures of energy available to hurricanes.

9. Death and Destruction: The Dangers of Hurricanes
Examine photos or videos of hurricane damage and read reports to find out the major causes of death in hurricanes. Explore the four main hazards of hurricanes and make an outline of how to prepare yourself to survive one of these storms.
Tools Needed: Internet connection capable of streaming video, if possible

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