The Relationship Between Sea Surface Temperature and Hurricane Activity

Is your unit on climate and weather approaching? Here’s some research you can use to enrich students’ understanding of weather. It can help you make real-world connections from the textbook and classroom to the research scientists working to understand the science of hurricanes.

The news comes from ScienceDaily. The article, Increased Hurricane Activity Linked to Sea Surface Warming, explains how two variables, sea surface temperature and atmospheric wind field, were used to model the conditions under which hurricanes form. When they focused on temperature, the researchers found that a small increase in sea surface temperature, 0.5 degrees C, had a large impact on hurricane activity.

Mark Saunders, one of the researchers from University College London, emphasized,

Our analysis does not identify whether greenhouse gas-induced warming contributed to the increase in water temperature and thus to the increase in hurricane activity. However, it is important that climate models are able to reproduce the observed relationship between hurricane activity and sea surface temperature so that we can have confidence in their reliability to project how hurricane activity will respond to future climate change.

An impressive, aggregate satellite photo of several hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico during 2005 accompanies the article. There are also links to several recent, related stories.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

This news article connects directly to the Earth and Space Sciencecontent standard for grades 5-8 of the National Science Education Standards, which includes this fundamental concept: “Global patterns of atmospheric movement influence local weather. Oceans have a major effect on climate, because water in the oceans holds a large amount of heat.” The reported research also connects to the Science as Inquiry content standard.

If your students already have a good understanding of the science of hurricanes, ask them what they think would be different about the world’s hurricanes if the sea surface temperature increased just a half degree C. How do they think one could investigate that question? What other variables need to be considered? What other existing evidence could be used to inform one’s hypotheses? Suggest that they might look at the history of hurricanes and the sea surface temperature conditions under which they formed. Why would such an investigation be potentially useful?

Then show them the brief article and ask, What do you think Saunder’s intention was when he said, “Our analysis does not identify whether greenhouse gas-induced warming contributed to the increase in water temperature and thus to the increase in hurricane activity?” Lead students to the related ideas of methods of science, which include making inferences supported by the evidence. This research did not investigate what might contribute to sea surface temperature increases, only the effects of sea surface temperature increases.

Here are some additional resources that are part of the Middle School Portal 2 collection to facilitate your instruction regarding weather and climate:

 The Powerful Punch of  a Hurricane; El Nino and His Sister La NinaTracking El Nino; Detecting El Nino in Sea Surface Temperature DataOceans, Climate and Weather; Earth’s Oceans, and Ocean Temperatures.

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This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published February 7, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 3/27/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.