Science Lessons from Ida

By Jack Williams ©2015

Ida,  a late-season hurricane that caused serious flooding along the U.S. Northeast Coast after it was no longer a hurricane or even a tropical storm offers teachers opportunities to hitch science lessons to a big news story.

Even students who say they don’t follow the news surely must have  heard of the storm if they live along the Gulf of Mexico Coast or the East Coast from Florida to New Jersey

In fact, teachers should be able to find ways to link the storm to the national standards for earth science listed in the table below.

Teachers of younger elementary students could use the storm t0 illustrate ideas in the “objects in the sky” –wind and rain–listed in the science standards in the table below.

A flooded street at the mouth of Onancock Creek in Onancock, Virginia the morning of November 13. Photo by Betty Flowers, used with permission.

A flooded street at the mouth of Onancock Creek in Onancock, Virginia the morning of November 13. Photo by Betty Flowers, used with permission.

The wind and rain are also examples of changes in the earth and sky, especially in places the storm affected.

Teachers could also use the storm to introduce some basic ideas about  storm safety, such as the need to evacuate from places a flood could threaten, and to take shelter from high winds that can blow dangerous objects around.The basic idea is to run from flooding, hide from wind.

For levels 5 through 8, the storm offers an obvious way to introduce ideas about the structure of the atmosphere and the ocean’s role in the earth system, such as what causes the wind to blow and how wind creates waves. The storm also opens the door to talking about how scientists understand the atmosphere and use this understanding to make forecasts.


Properties of earth materials Structure of the earth system Energy in the earth system
Objects in the sky Earth’s history Geochemical cycles
Changes in earth and sky Earth in the solar system Origin and evolution of the earth system
Origin and evolution of the universe

Table from National Science Education Standards, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 1996, page 107

A teacher could use Chapter 3 of The AMS Weather Book: The Ultimate Guide to America’s Weather for ideas on how to teach about winds and waves. The book’s Chapter 6 on weather observations and Chapter 7 on forecasting can help on those topics.

The AMS Weather Book would be especially helpful to teachers looking for ideas on how to handle “energy in the earth system. Chapter 2 focuses on “Earth’s energy” and how the flow of energy through the atmosphere and oceans drives weather and climate. Chapter 5 explains how air density differences supply most of the energy for extratropical storms and Chapter 10 has a graphic and text discussion of how a tropical cyclone is a heat engine–this would tie in perfectly with physics lessons on thermodynamics.

I am the co-author of two other books that supply more information:

Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth

Hurricanes: Causes, Effects, and the Future

Hurricane Watch is an extensive look at how people can to understand and forecast hurricanes and includes chapters of hurricane flying and scientific efforts to weaken hurricanes. The second book is brief, general look with more photos.

Background information on Ida

  • NASA’s Hurricanes and Tropical Cyclones Web site has an archive of day-by-day reports and images of Ida from Nov. 4  2009, when it was identified as Tropical Depression number 11, through Nov 13 as it was moving away from the United States
  • Stu Ostro has a huge amount of fascinating information on Ida on his Nov 13 Weather Channel blog, including a comparison to the 1999 “Perfect Storm,” which he looked back at in his Oct. 30, 2009 blog.
  • Weather Links: Hurricanes has several links to more information.

More on using weather to teach science


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