Tag Archives: Hurricane

Part I: What is a watershed?

Houston’s downtown flooded after Hurricane Harvey. Florida neighborhoods have struggled with murky standing water after Hurricane Irma. Catastrophe can overwhelm any system, but why doesn’t the ground just absorb the extra water?

In some cases, the answer is a damaged watershed, a concept most people don’t understand, even though we all live in one.

A watershed is the land area where all rain runs downhill to a certain point.

Simply put, a watershed is “all the land area where the rain runs downhill to a certain point,” explains Carolyn Staudt, who leads NSF-funded science projects at the Concord Consortium on land use and its effects on water resources.

Credit: Tony Webster original. CC BY-NC 2.0

A watershed could be described as a naturally occurring traffic cop, efficiently directing water that’s converging from all around to a common location, maybe a lake or the ocean. The water might also be funneled into a deep underground aquifer or be soaked up by trees.

But when the watershed is damaged, gridlock results, water backs up, and flooding occurs.

A wetland or a forest is a good traffic cop. A parking lot or a housing development is not. Once rain hits a paved surface, it has nowhere to go because it can’t be absorbed. Standing water on a sidewalk or a highway is trapped.

Credit: Addison Berry original. CC BY-NC 2.0

Explains Staudt, “Cities have been paving their wetlands,” the very places that naturally absorb water in a flood—or a hurricane. Even a small amount of rain can become a drainage problem where there’s widespread development of wetlands and prairies, which has been the case in Houston,  for example.  

Why is the connection between land use and water resources important to education?

Read “Part II: Students Learn about Water” to answer that question and find out how some students used the information they learned.  

Exploring hurricane datasets in the classroom

In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey evolved from a series of thunderstorms to one of the first major hurricane landfalls in the United States since early 2005. Right on the heels of Harvey, Hurricane Irma blasted through the Caribbean and onto the U.S. mainland, striking Florida in early September.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which aims to understand and predict changes in weather, provides educational resources and datasets about hurricanes.

The dataset for 2005-2015 is available in our Common Online Data Analysis Platform (CODAP), a free and open-source web-based data analysis tool, geared toward middle and high school students.

Screenshot of NOAA hurricane data embedded in our Common Online Data Analysis Platform.

With all the current catastrophic news about hurricanes, students have lots of questions. Use the data to help them understand the history and characteristics of storms.

  • To investigate the paths that hurricanes generally follow, use the slider to change the year from 2005 to 2015, and watch the data points on the map, which represent the general path of the storms.
  • To determine the storm with the highest wind speed, click the top data point in the wind speed graph, which plots year against highest wind speed. Since data is linked across multiple representations, the data point is highlighted on the graph and in the table, so you can find the name and date of that particular storm (e.g., Wilma, October 15, 2005, with top wind speeds of 160 mph).
  • To learn which year had the most or least number of storms, look at the storms per year graph. Notice an outlier in the data with year 2005, which had 15 storms during that season. (Note: This was the same year as Hurricane Katrina. Select KATRINA in the table and make sure the slider is set to 2005, then see the path of the hurricane graphed on the map.)
  • To see a relationship between wind and pressure, click on the Graph button. Drag the Maximum Wind column header from the table to the vertical (y) axis until the axis turns yellow. Drag the Minimum Pressure to the horizontal (x) axis until the axis turns yellow. (Note: you may need to scroll to the far right of the Case Table to see these columns.) 

Analyzing and interpreting data is one of the key science and engineering practices of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and representing and interpreting data are featured throughout the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for mathematics. Students can use publicly available datasets from storms and other weather events to learn more about the world around them.