Hurricane Mapping

Get blown away by the interesting paths of hurricanes!

About the Activity

Keep your eye on the storm! In this exciting 4-H STEM Lab activity kids will be introduced to using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) by tracking the paths of two of the most destructive storms to hit the United States in recent history. Kids will learn how to combine maps with data and to draw comparisons between two sets of geographic information and analyze how this data can inform important life-saving decisions.
 
Grades: 6 - 8
Topic: GIS Mapping
Estimated Time: 1 hour
 
Brought to you by HughesNet and University of Vermont Extension.

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Supplies
These simple materials—along with a few specialty supplies—will get you started.

  • Ruler
  • Pen
  • Item 3
  • 2 blank printouts of the Atlantic Basin Hurricane Tracking Chart
  • 1 copy of Hurricane Katrina coordinates (located in PDF)
  • 1 copy of Hurricane Rita coordinates (located in PDF)
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Activity Steps

  1. Handwrite in a larger size the numbers of the latitude and longitude lines next to those markers at the edge of the printed map sheets.Did You Know? Hurricanes form when thunderstorms suck up warm air near the ocean’s surface and convert it into high-intensity, circular winds higher in the atmosphere. This occurs in the North Atlantic in the late summer and early fall, when the ocean is warmest in this part of the world.
  2. Using the Hurricane Katrina coordinates sheet, plot the four coordinates on one of the two printed map sheets.How hurricanes work: The winds of a hurricane spin around a core of low-pressure air, called the eye of the hurricane. A hurricane’s path is determined by global winds as well as the high- and low-pressure systems around it.
4-H youth doing a GIS hurricane mapping activity
  1. Choose one point, recorded at the same interval, for each 24-hour period. For instance, if you choose the first data point for Katrina (recorded at 18GMT), choose that point for each subsequent day.Did you know? Hurricanes begin as low-pressure tropical depressions, which are not very dangerous at this point; as they grow in force they are upgraded to tropical storms, and when these storm systems obtain sustained winds of 74 mph or higher, they are categorized as hurricanes.
  2. Mark out each point of those 24-hour intervals.Hurricanes are rated on a scale of one to five based on their wind speeds and the potential damage they can cause. Category 1 is the lowest at 74 m.p.h to 95 m.p.h; Category 5 is the highest at 157 m.p.h.
  3. Use the ruler to connect each point.Did you know? A tornado can have much higher wind speeds than a hurricane, with top speeds reaching up to 260 m.p.h. But hurricanes often are more dangerous and cause more damage because of the sheer size and scope, and also because of the flooding they produce.
  4. Repeat this process on the other map for Hurricane Rita.Did you know? Low-pressure and high-pressure systems aren’t dangerous by themselves but can lead to more dangerous storms. Another type of weather term to know: Cold fronts and warm fronts. Fronts are the leading edge of a pressure system. Cold fronts lead a low-pressure system, and often cause more drastic changes in weather conditions. A warm-pressure system is the opposite. You can read more about pressure systems and fronts at the National Weather Service.
  5. Once complete, compare and analyze the different paths of the two hurricanes.
  6. Repeat the mapping process, but instead of choosing one point from each 24-hour period, map out all four coordinates from each day. Then compare the second set of maps to the first and analyze the changes in trajectory that can happen within a single 24-hour period.Did You Know?Wind speeds are just one factor in the damage a hurricane can cause–the other is the water that a storm can push onto land, called a storm surge, which can cause flooding.

Reflection Questions
Questions for your kids and teens.

  1. What environmental/weather-related factors could meteorologists study to determine what creates a hurricane’s trajectory (the path that it takes)?
  2. How can first responders use maps like these to prepare their responses?
  3. GIS is the combination of geographic data, like a specific location, with attribute data, like the name or description tied to that location. Do you use GIS in your life now, and if so, how?
  4. Think about your response to No. 3 and then ask yourself, how might first responders use GIS technologies to create more efficient responses to hurricane destruction and help save people’s lives?
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Investigate and Explore
Take what you've learned to the next level to learn more and explore the possibilities.

A typical year has three major hurricanes. Tracking hurricanes can help save lives. These two destructive hurricanes occurred less than a month apart from each other in the late summer of 2005. Each created massive destruction on the Gulf Coast of the U.S. Historically, emergency responders have mapped hurricanes to try to prepare and target their responses, but relying on traditional physical maps that are not updated in real time can limit how effective those responses are.


Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can change that, allowing locals and responders to work together to create real-time maps and data systems to help save lives. In 2017, survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Texas created pins on Google maps and added attribute data like ‘Woman in Labor’ to help first responders. GIS was used after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017 to track which parts of the island had lost power, cell service and access to potable water, and after Hurricane Irma, also in 2017, to map out flooded parts of Florida’s Gulf Coast.

satellite image of hurricane over the United States

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