SPARK 2014 – A week of extreme weather events

Spark: a small fiery particle thrown off from a fire, alight in ashes, or produced by striking together two hard surfaces such as stone or metal.

SPARK: A residential science program for curious middle schoolers at Brown University.

This week is middle school science camp. I am helping Brown Geology Professor Tom Webb teach a course on Extreme Weather. The goal of the class is to track the week’s weather to give students a sense of weather dynamics and the physical drivers behind them. It’s been an active week, both in terms of the meteorology – thunderstorms rolling through mid-week and a typhoon in the western Pacific Ocean – and in terms of the class activities.

The class did a lot of in-class experiments, demonstrations, and weather map analyses. But, the highlights of the class were the two field trips. The first was to the Blue Hills Weather Observatory. This site is home to the longest continuous weather observations anywhere in the Americas. We saw the first mercury barometer in North America, original weather ledgers from 1880’s, and solar orbs used to measure sunlight.

Students fill out their worksheets and observe the Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder, which is basically a glass Orb magnifying glass that burns through a recording sheet when the sun shines.

Checking out the meteorology ledger from 1889.

The 1989 weather ledger

Precipitation collector

The early researchers kept track of temperature, air pressure, humidity, cloud cover and type, wind, and precipitation. The same measurements, often with the same instruments, have been recorded every day since 1885 to today.

Blue Hills meteorlogist showing the view from the tower.

The view from GBH to Boston is about 10 miles. Visibility on Tuesday was 10 miles, but barely.

Kite construction.

Kite flying from the summit of Great Blue Hill just like in the 1800’s.

The second field trip was to the Succotash Salt Marsh, where we looked for evidence of past hurricanes in the geologic record. This type of study is called paleotempestology, and more details are in an earlier blog post. Basically, we found five layers of sand representing five big hurricanes since year 1400. The latest was Hurricane Carol in 1954.

Prepping the vibracore for sediment recovery.

Evidence of ancient hurricanes!

The crew faced some adversity – broken sediment core pipe. It took some serious muscle to get the core out of the ground.

Tom Webb and post-doc Sarah Ivory check out the extruded sediment core.

So much fun 🙂

Checking out some salt marsh life.

The field trips punctuated a week of classroom activities and other types of scientific inquiries. We made daily weather observations, experimented with air pressure and tornados, and poured over daily weather maps. The students also had a chance on Monday and Wednesday for elective engineering-type activities, such as hot air balloon construction and catapult launching.

Lab prep.

Dr. Webb demonstrates how to use a sling psychrometer to measure humidity.

Swinging the sling psychrometer to measure wet bulb and dry bulb temperature. Together, these measurements tell us about the dewpoint and relative humidity.

Downloading weather maps.

Launching catapults!!