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Climate, Weather



Summer 2005 was winding down when what was to become a monster storm was just beginning to brew. Hurricane Katrina started as a tropical depression in the southeastern Bahamas on August 23. By the next day it had strengthened to a tropical storm and began moving slowly on a northwesterly, then westerly track gaining strength as it moved through the warm Atlantic waters. On August 25, just a few hours before the storm hit the coast of southern Florida, Katrina became a Category 1 hurricane. Moving across the tip of the Florida peninsula in seven hours, the storm's winds slowed only slightly. As the storm hit the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico it quickly picked up speed.

As the storm moved across the Gulf of Mexico, atmospheric and sea surface conditions were perfect for fueling the storm, which exploded into a Category 5 hurricane on the morning of Sunday, August 28, with winds of 257 kilometers per hour (160 miles per hour).

Gulf Coast residents who survived Hurricane Camille in 1969, which had winds of more than 200 miles per hour, thought they had seen it all. A witness who was 12-years-old at the time, recalls "After about four hours of relentless winds and rain, all the sudden there was silence outside, dead silence! We were inside the eye of the hurricane. The center of the eye actually made landfall in Pass Christian, Mississippi, which is about 12 miles west of where we were living. That's just how huge this storm was." But Katrina, while comparable to Hurricane Camille when it was at its peak strength, was a significantly larger storm and impacted a broader area of the Gulf Coast.

When Katrina came ashore on August 29, it became one of the deadliest and costliest storms to hit the United States. The National Climatic Data Center described Katrina as "one of the strongest storms to impact the coast of the United States during the last 100 years. With sustained winds during landfall of 125 mph (110 kts; a strong category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale) and minimum central pressure the third lowest on record at landfall (920 mb)." The storm caused widespread destruction along the U.S. central Gulf Coast. Coastal cities such as New Orleans, LA, Mobile, AL, and Gulfport, MS were hardest hit. Much of the damage was caused by the storm surge and levee breaks between New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain.

Since 1995 there have been an increasing number of hurricanes, with 2005 going down in the record books with the largest number (27) of named tropical cyclones in history. The previous record (21) was in 1933.

The National Climatic Data Center reported that in 2005 "There were a record 27 named storms, of which 15 were hurricanes, exceeding the 1969 record of 12 hurricanes, and 7 were major hurricanes. Of the 7 major hurricanes, an unprecedented 4 reached category 5 status. The season was remarkable for its early beginning and number of storms as well as the intensity of the hurricanes, including the most intense hurricane on record for the Atlantic."

Are recent increases in the number and strength of hurricanes evidence of global climate change? Or are they the result of a natural climate cycle? While scientists are still studying and debating what is causing this trend, there is no doubt that these storms have a huge impact on coastal communities.

In addition to profound environmental impacts (including erosion and loss of wetlands), Hurricane Katrina was responsible for over $81 billion of property damage and is by far the costliest hurricane to ever strike the United States. It is also the third deadliest on record, with over 1,500 killed. The 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons also produced seven out of the nine costliest storms ever to affect the United States (NOAA, April 2007).



Recognizing the importance of U.S. coastal areas to the nation's economy, the U.S. National Ocean Service has formed a task force that is studying the trends and impacts of hurricanes on coastal regions. They have invited your group to participate; you are tasked with conducting an Earth systems analysis of Hurricane Katrina that will help answer the question "is global warming causing an increase in hurricane frequency and intensity?"


Date: 7/31/2011

Scenario Images:

Arlene to Zeta
Click here to view the movie.

Arlene to Zeta: 27 Hurricanes of the 2005 Season:
This 5-minute data visualization from NASA shows all 27 named storms of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season and examines some of the conditions that made hurricane formation so favorable. May take several minutes to load on slower connections. Tip for using in the classroom: download the animation to your computer.

NASA MODIS Image of Hurricane Katrina
NASA MODIS Image of Hurricane Katrina

When the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite captured this image of Hurricane Katrina on August 27 at 11:20 a.m. U.S. Central time, the inner eyewall had begun to deteriorate and an outer eyewall was forming. The two eyewalls are clearly visible as two concentric circles at the center of the storm. Katrina was also expanding, and by the end of the day, had doubled in size. Credit Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC



Historical Hurricane Tracks: NOAA Coastal Services Center (Cycle A)
Interactive mapping applications to easily search and display Atlantic and East Central Pacific basin tropical cyclone data. Three tools: 1) Query Storm Tracks - search and display the track a storm took (maps shows storm track and intensity). Search for storms by zip code, city or state, lat or long, geographic region. 2) Access Storm Reports written by National Hurricane Center staff - these reports include a summary of the storm's life cycle and meteorological data; a description of the damage and casualties; and information on forecasts and warnings. 3) Coastal Popoulation Tool - access graphs showing poulation change by decade vs. hurricane strikes for coastal counties from Texas to Maine.


Hurricane-Biosphere Connection (Cycle A)
NASA data shows hurricanes help plants bloom in ocean deserts.


NASA Hurricane Website (Cycle A)
This site provides a wide variety of information regarding recent and historic hurricanes. A collection of links feature information including the latest images and animations from recent hurricanes, in depth web pages about hurricanes, educational tools and products, hurricane topics and the latest hurricane news.


NOAA's home page for hurricanes (Cycle A)
Start with Hurricane Basics for general information about hurricane structure, origin and more.


University of Illinois: Online Meteorology Guide (Cycle A)
Allows you to fly through a 3-D hurricane.


Hurricanes: The Greatest Storms on Earth (Cycle B)
Reference article from November 1, 2006 on the NASA Earth Observatory.


NASA Hurricane Education (Cycle B)
Link to NASA educational tools on hurricanes including posters, visualizations and graphics, and classroom activities.


Seeing Hurricanes as Only NASA Can (Cycle B)
2004 NASA Press Release about Hurricane Frances.


Stronger Link Found Between Hurricanes and Global Warming (Cycle B)
This July 30, 2007 article on Scientific summarizes the results of a new study that suggests that hurricanes are on the rise and a warming Atlantic is to blame.


Katrina visualization (Cycle C)
Visualization developed at the NCAR Earth System Laboratory and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.


The Deadliest, Costliest, and Most Intense United States Tropical Cyclones From 1851 (Cycle C)
This technical memorandum from NOAA/National Weather Service ranks hurricane damage, as expressed by monetary losses (contemporary estimates adjusted by inflation to 2000 dollars and estimates adjusted for inflation and the growth of population and personal wealth). In addition, the most intense hurricanes to make landfall in the United States during the 1900-2006 are listed.


TRMM Sees Rain from Hurricanes Fall Around the World (Cycle C)
NASA Press Release from 2004 about the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM).


Sample Investigations:


Forces of Nature: Hurricanes (Cycle A)
Explore the violent nature of hurricanes, then build your own tropical cyclone; activity from National Geographic. For grades 4-6.
Difficulty: intermediate


Beginning Activity: The Eye of the Hurricane. (Cycle A)
This lesson plan introduces students to the structure of a hurricane, particularly the eye. It can be used as an introduction to a unit on hurricanes or weather phenomena. Students will view a video about hurricanes, do a simple hurricane simulation, take a tour into the eye of a hurricane, and write reports about their tour. For grades 3-5.
Difficulty: beginner


Natural hazards risks in the U.S. (Cycle A)
From National Geographic. Students have probably studied natural hazards (e.g., earthquakes or hurricanes) in elementary school. This lesson continues their education on this topic by asking them to examine specific locations of high risk for various natural hazards, to assess why these hazards exist where they do, and to investigate what towns and cities are doing to prepare for a natural disaster. In the process, students will practice their research and map-analysis skills. For grades 6-8.
Difficulty: intermediate


Hurricane! Event-Based Science (Cycle B)
An Event-Based Science module for middle school about one of the most devastating weather events that people can experience. The story focuses on the devastation that Hurricane Andrew brought to South Florida in August, 1992. This storm destroyed 25,524 homes, damaged 101,241 more, left 250,000 people homeless and 54 dead.

The task in Hurricane! turns your class into teams of experts. Each team will publish a newspaper account of a real hurricane that is approaching one of 11 American cities that have been chosen as the teams' home cities. Each home city has a history that includes hurricane strikes and damage. For middle school.
Difficulty: intermediate


Exploring the Environment: Severe Weather: Hurricanes (Cycle C)
This module asks student groups to track a past hurricane. Background information explains how hurricanes occur, how they are named, and the Saffir-Simpson Intensity Scale. The module is part of an on-line series from NASA's Classroom of the Future, which emphasizes an integrated approach to environmental Earth science education through problem-based learning, For grades 5-12.

Difficulty: intermediate


Stronger Hurricanes? (Cycle C)
Is global warming making hurricanes more intense? Have your students investigate this question using this online resource. The slide show, accompanied by a broadcast segment from the TV show, examines the link between rising sea surface temperature and storm intensity. The video clip is 6 minutes long. Links are also provided to a story about the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, to websites with related information, and to a teacher's guide and written transcript of the broadcast. For grades 5-12.
Difficulty: intermediate




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Evidence, models, and explanation
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Natural hazards
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Natural and human-induced hazards
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      • How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth’s surface
      Physical processes shape Earth’s surface and interact with plant and animal life to create, sustain, and modify ecosystems. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth’s surface
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