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Storm STEM

We are on the heels of Harvey and watching Irma spinning in the Atlantic. What better time to do some stormy science?

Hurricane in a bottle

Grab a 2-liter soda bottle and fill it with water. Quickly turn it over so it is pointed straight down. How does the water come out of the bottle? How long does it take to empty the bottle?

Repeat the process again but this time, when you flip the bottle full of water over, swirl it around in a circle so the water inside sloshes around the outside. Now how does the water drain? Does it take more or less time?

The second time you emptied the bottle you created a whirlpool! Swirling the water around created a hole in the middle for the air to enter the bottle efficiently as the water went out.   This is the same thing that happens in the bathtub when you open the drain.

Tornadoes and hurricanes are just giant whirlpools of air! They pull air up through the center in the same way as the water swirling in the bottle. The swirling motion is provided by the rotation of the Earth. If the Earth did not spin around, we would have no tornadoes or hurricanes.

Want to keep your hurricane in the bottle instead of dumping it in the sink?

  • Grab another 2-liter bottle, a washer the same size as the opening of the bottles and some duct tape.
  • Fill one bottle about 2/3 full of water.
  • Throw in some glitter, Styrofoam peanuts or monopoly houses so that you can see the swirling hurricane better – or even a small amount of colored lamp oil that will float on top of the water.
  • Place the washer over the opening of this bottle and then the other bottle upside down over that so that the openings and washer line up.
  • Use a generous amount of duct tape to attach the bottles.
  • Turn the bottles over, give it a good swirl and watch the whirlpool go!

Storm Engineering Challenges

The damage caused by storms such as hurricanes and tornadoes comes from two things – wind and rain. Wind can blow over buildings and trees causing quick, extensive damage. Floodwaters on the other hand can quickly fill up low lying areas and cause problems in houses with mold and pollution. Both can be deadly if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

However, with a little engineering, damage from both wind and rain can be avoided or at least reduced. Check out these design challenges to see if you can create buildings and dams that will withstand the damage from large storms.

Storm Data

You can even do science DURING a storm. If you have a thermometer and barometer handy, use those – or just use the ones built into a smart phone! Phones use a barometer to help determine elevation when using the GPS. They use a thermometer to determine if the phone is overheating (and then shut it down if it is!) You can download apps that use these instruments already in your phone to collect weather data [barometer] [thermometer].

Write down the temperature and air pressure ever 5 to 15 minutes as a storm moves through your neighborhood. How do the temperature and air pressure before, during and after the storm compare? Make a graph to better visualize the data.

And even if you can’t take your own data there is plenty of data online to look at! My friend John White, a meteorologist for the Air Force, sent me this for Hurricane Irma, which is now in the Atlantic but this will work for other hurricanes as well.

Use the NOAA Aviation Weather Center to view Irma’s location and effects on airfields reporting weather.

When the page opens,

  • Drag and zoom the map to display the western Atlantic and Caribbean;
  • Just below the map frame, select only the check boxes for “Sat” (satellite), Radar, METAR (Meteorological Aviation Reports, which will display station plots with which you’re likely already familiar), and “FltCat” (display a color coded flight category. You can leave the PIREPS checked at your discretion; these display turbulence and icing reported by in-flight aircrews.
  • In the upper right corner of the map, there is an icon that will open the display to  a full-screen view.
  • Clicking on the station plot will display the place name and METAR report. For example, TISX is St Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. To decode the METAR, try selecting “METARS” from the “Observations” menu link above the map. Then click the “Decoded” box in the “DataOptions” section below the map.
  • To find the details on the reporting sites (place names, locations, data types and more) use this voluminous text file. You can use the browser’s “Edit” then “Find” tool to  facilitate searching,

As Irma approaches the islands and later the US mainland, you can observe how the weather conditions change with respect to the storm’s positions.

When Irma later moves into regions with data all around, you’ll see the winds variation with quadrants around the storm and with distance from the storm  – where equipment continues to report. Often power outages or damaged equipment will result in no reports (“holes in the map”).

Compare to NHC information.

Compare also to the NWS Ocean Prediction Center’s maps and data and to other data from the other centers.

You can also see the NWS model forecast charts.

If you have questions, the NWS JetStream School is a terrific reference.

More Hurricane Resources