Lab 07: Climate Change and Global Hurricane Tracking

Stuart MacKinnon

The climate is changing and the average global temperature of planet Earth is rising. Scientists have already noted that glaciers have shrunk, sea level has risen, ice on lakes and rivers have starting breaking up and melting earlier each year, there are more frequent and more intense heat waves, and plant and animal ranges have shifted. These effects are relatively easy to comprehend in the context of a rising global temperature, but what else does a changing climate entail? Of major concern are the various effects resulting from increased intensity of weather and climate events. Increasing intensity of precipitation events, along with increasing intensity of weather patterns and events, such as hurricanes, have already been observed. In your own life, you may have already noticed that summers seem hotter and dryer, that precipitation events seem more intense, or that local flooding events have been more common or more severe. These are all effects happening around us. The issues we face because of climate change will effect everyone, not just the polar bears and other inhabitants of the arctic who have seen the early effects of climate change more dramatically.

NASA has a good but short online article on The Effects of Climate Change if you wish to read more about some of these effects. At the bottom of this NASA article you will also find references to some of the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) summaries, and assessments from the US National Climate Assessment. These are much more thorough technical reports, but do contain a wealth of information.

In this lab, you will explore what hurricanes are, how their intensity is measured, practice tracking a hurricane storm, and research a location prone to hurricane. You will demonstrate your understanding of hurricanes and climate change by creating a hurricane research report.

Learning Objectives

After completion of this lab, you will be able to

  • Describe weather and climate impacts of climate change in simple language.
  • Apply some effects of climate change to real world situations.
  • Understand what hurricanes are, and how we measure their intensity.
  • Track hurricane storms using hurricane tracking charts.
  • Discuss how climate change is impacting hurricane storm systems.
  • Consider climate change impact mitigation measures that you could personally implement.


What Causes Earth’s Climate to Change Over Time?

Lab 06: Climate Analysis with Virtual Globes discusses what causes Earth’s climate to change over time, and how scientists measure spatial variation in the Earth’s energy budget. If you have completed Lab 06, it is recommended that you review this text as a refresher. If you have not completed lab 06, you should thoroughly review this text before proceeding with this lab.

What are Hurricanes and How Do We Measure Hurricane Intensity?

A hurricane is a type of tropical cyclone. A tropical cyclone is an organized system of clouds and thunderstorms that begin in tropical, or subtropical, waters. The winds of these systems blow in a circular manner, making the cyclone rotate. Winds blow quickly, and so their speeds are measured in kilometres per hour (km/h) or miles per hour (mph). In the Northern Hemisphere, tropical cyclones rotate counter-clockwise. In the Southern Hemisphere, tropical cyclones rotate clockwise. Tropical cyclones can be classified based on their sustained wind speeds:

  • Tropical Depression: 61 km/hr (38 mph) or less maximum sustained wind speed
  • Tropical Storm: 62 to 117 km/hr (39 to 73 mph) maximum sustained wind speed
  • Hurricane: 118 km/hr (74 mph) or more maximum sustained wind speed
  • Major Hurricane: 178 km/hr (111 mph) or more maximum sustained wind speed

Tropical Cyclone Climatology provides a good synopsis of what tropical cyclones are, the Atlantic and Eastern-Pacific climatology for the United States of America (USA), and some historical information on hurricanes that have occurred on and near the USA. Read the Tropical Cyclone Climatology online article to familiarize yourself with this information before proceeding with this lab.

Categories of hurricanes can be classified using the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Categories 1 and 2 correspond with the classification of hurricane above (118 to 177 km/hr maximum sustained wind speeds), and categories 3, 4, and 5 correspond with the classification of major hurricane above (178 km/hr or more maximum sustained wind speeds). These categories help to identify the hazard and anticipated damage that could result from the varying maximum sustained wind speed of different hurricanes. Review the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale online article, and watch the Hurricane Intensity Scale (Wind Damage) animation on the same website before starting the lab exercises.

Lab Exercises

In these two lab exercises you will practice manually tracking a USA hurricane, then you will research and submit a hurricane research report. This hurricane research report will be based on a location of your choice that is prone to hurricanes, and an examination of potential changes resulting from climate change. This lab should take 2-3 hours to complete.

EX1: Practice Tracking a US Hurricane

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) is a branch of the USA Government that monitors and tracks hurricane systems in both the Eastern Pacific and the Atlantic regions of the USA. In this exercise, you will manually track a current, or recent, hurricane system in one of these two regions. Your instructor will provide you with which hurricane system you are tracking, and they will guide you through how to complete the exercise. This exercise must be completed during class time, or at the time agreed with your instructor.

Step 1: Download either the Eastern Pacific Blank Tracking Chart or Atlantic Blank Tracking Chart from Worksheets. Your instructor will tell you which one you need. Then, print out a copy of this blank tracking chart prior to the lab/class time that you will be completing this exercise. If you are unable to print it out, you may be able to edit it using software such as Microsoft Photos or Paint. Check with your instructor first if electronic image editing is acceptable.

Step 2:Open the National Hurricane Center and Central Pacific Hurricane Center (NHC) website. Your instructor will tell you where you need to navigate on this website to find the data you need.

Step 3: Using your pencils or the drawing tools in your software, mark the progress of the hurricane on your chart.

Step 4: Photograph or scan and upload (printed copies) and save to a known location on your computer (all versions). Submit as directed by your instructor.

EX2: Hurricane Research Report

Now, it is time for you to do your own research. In this exercise, you will research a current hurricane or historic hurricane that has occurred. This hurricane can be occurring, or have occurred, anywhere on the world; however, it must:

  • have occurred since 1980,
  • be/been classified as a hurricane, not a tropical storm, and
  • have adequate information to write about all of the required research report components.

Research report components:

  1. Introduction – one paragraph that includes the following information:
    • The name (if applicable) and classification of the hurricane (i.e., what was it?).
    • General geographic location of the hurricane (i.e., where was it?).
    • When the hurricane occurred, and its duration (i.e., when was it?).
    • The reason you examined this hurricane (i.e., why did you choose it?).
  2. Hurricane facts – 2 to 3 paragraphs that includes the following information:
    • An explanation of the climatology that produced the hurricane.
    • What wind speeds were observed throughout the hurricane.
    • A description of the geographic path the hurricane travelled.
    • An account of the extent of damage caused by the hurricane (i.e., were houses and/or other human buildings destroyed? how many?).
    • If human buildings were destroyed, did they rebuild in the same location (if applicable).
    • Human impact mitigations that were in place because of hurricanes, or resulted because of the hurricane (if applicable).
    • Three other facts that you found interesting.
  3. Conclusion – one short paragraph (2-3 sentences) that summarizes that key facts you want someone reading your report to remember.

Carefully read the research report components before selecting the hurricane you wish to research. If you have a hurricane in mind, check it against these requirements before continuing. If it does not meet the requirements, or you need some ideas, begin this exercise by doing an exploratory search on the internet for hurricane events. Finding an event that interests you will make writing about it easier.

Your instructor will provide you with guidelines on formatting, reference requirements, etc. Ensure you thoroughly review these before submitting your report as directed by your instructor.

Reflection Questions

  1. How do you anticipate hurricane frequency and severity to change as a result of climate change? Why? Write 3-5 sentences to explain.
  2. Many people associate climate change as something that only impacts the polar regions of the world. For example, the impact of melting sea ice on polar bears in the arctic. This is a misconception held by a large amount of people. There are actually some implications of climate change wherever anyone lives. Write 3-5 sentences outlining some climate change impacts within your community. You may need to start with a quick internet search for ideas.
  3. What is one thing you could do to reduce your personal contribution to climate change? How will this personal change make a difference? Write 3-5 sentences to explain.


Return to EX1

Eastern Pacific Blank Tracking Chart

About the Author

Stuart is an educational program design professional who is currently the Lab Program Manager for the Department of Earth, Environmental and Geographic Sciences at UBC’s Okanagan Campus. Within this role, Stuart is responsible for the laboratory curriculum and instruction of first year physical geography and earth and environmental science courses. They hold a B.Sc. in earth and environmental science and a B.Ed. in secondary science education from UBC’s Campus, along with a M.Sc. in geography and a graduate certificate in learning and teaching in higher education from the University of Victoria. Stuart is a certified secondary school teacher who taught middle and high school math and science in both British Columbia and Alberta prior to joining UBC in their current role. During their spare time, Stuart is outside with their family exploring the wonders that BC has to offer and sharing their passion for the planet Earth with their daughter. In developing curriculum, they focus on experiential learning and the integration of as much field-based learning as is feasible. Stuart coordinated the development of this lab manual and is grateful for the phenomenal group of dedicated educators that came together on short notice to make this all happen.