Trying to keep your kids using their brains during the summer can be a challenge. There’s bikes to be rode, pools to swim in, and parks to explore. While kids should, of course, be free to enjoy their summer, it’s also important their brains stay active as well. That’s why we put together these blog posts. Use them to teach your kids fun facts and concepts to make them think.
This week, we want to focus on a subject that is not only interesting, but impacts all of us every single day…weather. We all have the ability to check the TV, our phones, the internet, and the sky, but few people are able to predict weather accurately. Now, don’t get us wrong, this post will not allow your child to predict like the meteorologists on TV do. But it can give them an idea of how weather works while critically examining weather forecasts. In terms of predictions, this information should allow them to study the conditions of the day, radar included, to determine if it may rain or stay sunny for their outdoor activities.
The first step to understanding weather is to understand the atmosphere. There are multiple layers of the atmosphere, but for our purposes the only one we have to worry about is the troposphere. This is where we live and where all our weather takes place. The reason we even have weather in this part of the atmosphere is because of the sun. The sun’s energy brings heat to the Earth, and of course, this heat is not distributed evenly. It takes an entire college course to introduce even the basics of meteorology, and to become a meteorologist you need a bachelors degree in meteorology, and sometimes even a masters or PHD. So today we’re going to focus on only several topics for your kids to tackle.
Your kids are likely to be most interested in why precipitation forms. To understand that they must first understand cloud formation.
Clouds are made out of water. They form when water vapor in the atmosphere condenses. This condensation must happen on some type of surface, such as a dust particle or smoke. For a cloud to form, the air needs to either cool down enough, or there has to be an excess of water vapor in the air. When this happens the water vapor will condense and clouds will begin forming. This is where the weather prediction aspect comes in. There are many different types of clouds, and different cloud types mean different things.
We could spend an entire blog post discussing the types of clouds, so we’re going to give you only the basics and provide you with a resource, including pictures, to help kids identify different clouds. There are high clouds, mid clouds, and low clouds. In general, high level clouds are unlikely to cause precipitation imminently, but can indicate precipitation that may occur in several days. Mid clouds can produce precipitation, depending on which cloud it is. This precipitation may be a light drizzle or a long-lasting rain. Low clouds may indicate beautiful weather, or severe thunderstorms. Nimbostratus clouds, which are thick, dark clouds that blanket the sky, are likely to bring a lot of rain. Cumulonimbus clouds, which are thick and dense, bring thunderstorms. These are the big precipitation producers that should be watched the most. For a more detailed guide including pictures, follow this link.
To review, high level clouds rarely indicate precipitation, but cirrus clouds can be an indicator of precipitation in the next several days. Nimbostratus and cumulonimbus always brings rain and storms, so keep a close eye on the sky and consider rescheduling outdoor plans. This is, of course, generalized, and further research can lead you to many other types of clouds which can help indicate how much, if any, precipitation will occur.
So how does precipitation form in these clouds? Well we’ve already learned that for clouds to form, you need water vapor. Within the clouds, water vapor begins forming more and more water droplets, which begin to freeze. These ice crystals continue to attract more water, and eventually they become so heavy that they fall. Depending on the air temperature below the cloud, this may melt into water, creating rain, or fall as snow. There are of course other forms of precipitation such as freezing rain and sleet which can form depending on the temperature. In cumulonimbus clouds water droplets, ice crystals, and more regularly collide, building up electricity in the cloud. The difference in the positive and negative electric charges in the clouds and the ground below continue to build, and when they’re large enough this creates lightning. The sheer heat of the electricity causes the air to expand and creates the sound of thunder. Thunder itself is not dangerous, but it does indicate lightning is nearby, which can be fatal. Thunderstorms can also bring high winds, hail, and tornados.
So, with all this knowledge, how do you teach kids to predict the weather? Well, it takes meteorologists years to learn to predict the weather. Even for them, it is challenging to accurately predict the weather more than several days ahead of time. There are some ways that kids can use their knowledge to figure out the weather for that day or a day or two beyond.
- The best method of prediction for your kids is to observe the clouds. Once they understand the types of clouds in the sky, they can make predictions. Cirrus clouds tend to indicate bad weather within several days, while cumulus clouds indicate good weather. Simply studying the different cloud types can help kids predict what the weather may do in several days, or later in the day.
- Have your kids pay attention to the air and wind. Changes in the wind can be a good indication of bad weather. Strong winds may be a sign of high pressure differences, which can mean a storm is more likely to form. A sudden cooling of air can mean a cold front, which can lead to more water vapor, clouds, and rain. Humans can often feel the difference in the air as a storm is forming, sometimes due to a sense of smell, sometimes due to temperature and wind changes.
- Use radars. Anyone can look at a radar image, but it takes some studying to predict if a storm is likely to reach you. Watch the direction of the rain on the radar. Note if the storm is building or breaking apart. There are also small indicators, such as hook echos, which can indicate a forming tornado. These look like a small hook within a storm.
- Kids can use information such as air pressure and warm and cold fronts to predict future weather. Different air masses tend not to mix well together. A cold front, for example, is composed of cold air which is heavier and pushes underneath warm air. A warm front is composed of warm air that slips up over colder air. A cold front is much more likely to produce thunderstorms due to the instability in the air. So if kids notice a cold front coming within the next day or two, they can make predictions about if it will storm or not.
- There are also small tricks that can be used to predict weather. For example, if thunderstorms are predicted later in the day, a lot of sun early in the day can actually produce worse storms. This is because the sun heats the atmosphere. Very hot air meeting very cold air can lead to stronger storms.
Of course, none of this is completely concrete. Weather can change rapidly, which is why it is so difficult to predict. Don’t let kids get discouraged. After all, meteorologists make mistakes often too.
- Use the bottle cloud apparatus to create clouds.
- Invest in the upright weather station to observe sunlight, rainfall, the wind, and temperature.
- Watch the temperature with this student thermometer.
- Let kids track the weather and make observations on their own with this reusable weather tracker.
Keep checking back for more great science lessons for the summer!