Smithsonian Science Education Center Launches Weather Lab

Visualizing Weather Formed by Ocean Currents and Air Masses

Have you ever wondered how weather forms? You can see the effects of weather when it's snowing or a storm rolls through, but it's difficult to visualize on a continental scale. SSEC educators designed the new Weather Lab app, with help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to help students and teachers visualize the complex interactions of ocean currents and air masses that create weather over North America. In the Weather Lab, students take on the role of meteorologists by predicting spring weather and how people should dress for it in particular regions of the United States. Students base their predictions on the interactions generated by the ocean current and air masses they choose. 

As stated by Ron Gird, NOAA's  Education Director, it is "An engaging, creative activity to see how ocean features and atmospheric air masses interact to produce our daily weather events and how weather impacts our daily activities...All ages will enjoy this activity."

This app supports the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for middle school:

  • Collect data to provide evidence for how the motions and complex interactions of air masses results in changes in weather conditions.
  • Teachers can use this app to support lessons about weather patterns and engage students in modeling and predicting.

When students make predictions there are four main air masses in North America to choose from:

  • mT= Maritime Tropical: A warm, humid air mass year-round that forms over the oceans and warm waters of the equator. (warm/moist)
  • cT= Continental Tropical: A warm, dry air mass that forms over the desert Southwest of the United States and northern Mexico. (warm/dry)
  • mP= Maritime Polar: A cold or cool air mass that always carries moisture and forms over the cool North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. (cool/moist)
  • cP= Continental Polar: A cold, dry air mass that forms over the interior of Canada and Alaska. (cool/dry)

The large numbers of ocean currents found around North America to four major gyres:

  • Pacific Ocean Gyre
  • Gulf Loop Gyre
  • North Atlantic Gyre
  • North Atlantic Gyre and Trade Winds

Once students chose their gyre and air masses they predict how to prepare for the day's weather. Examples might include wearing a sweater, taking an umbrella, putting on sunscreen, or seeking shelter in the basement from tornados and strong storms.

After the student chooses the correct prediction, the air masses and gyres animate, allowing the student to visualize the interactions. In most scenarios when the two air masses meet, the map shows a frontal boundary symbol to indicate the weather in the region in question. A short explanation accompanies each animation, including a link to a real-world scenario created from a similar air mass interaction. The link includes still satellite images and videos. 

The Weather Lab is a fun support tool for students and teachers to help them understand the interactions of Earth's systems that help form weather. Visit the SSEC website to check out this app and share it with teachers and friends.

Check out the Weather Lab app by visiting www.ssec.si.edu/app/weather

NOAA also has a wide range of supporting materials available. See their website with Educator Resources and information: http://www.education.noaa.gov/

About the Author

Karen McDonald

Karen has been teaching informal science and environmental education programs for over twelve years, including managing park naturalist programs in Delaware, and starting up and running the Education and Outreach Program at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC).