When Nature Strikes: What Could You See as a Tornado Approaches

Students will first read about tornadoes. Next, they will examine images taken at various distances as a tornado approached Rice TX in 2010, and try to sequence these images in order. They will examine Doppler radar images of the storm made at the same times as the images to understand how meteorologists try to forecast tornadoes. Finally, they will develop a presentation to share what they have learned with younger students and/or community groups. Materials:
Created by NESTA/Windows to the Universe member Dr. Michael J Passow using resources provided by the National Weather Service Fort Worth Office and other resources. "When Nature Strikes" is produced by NBC Learn in partnership with the National Science Foundation.
Grade level:
7 - 9
3 - 5 class periods
Student Learning Outcomes:
1. Students will understand what causes tornadoes, how tornadoes can be monitored, and learn about some historic events.
2. Students will examine visual and radar images of an approaching tornado system to learn what an approaching tornado may look like.
3. Students will create a presentation to share what they know with younger students and/or community groups.
Lesson format:
Examination and sequencing of images (visual and radar) of the Navarro County tornado (2010) Develop presentation to share knowledge about tornadoes with younger children and/or community groups

Standards Addressed:

NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas:
ESS2.A Earth Materials and Systems
ESS2.C The Roles of Water in Earth Systems
ESS2.D Weather and Climate
ESS3.B Natural Hazards
ESS3.D Global Climate Change
ETS1.B Developing Possible Solutions
NGSS Science and Engineering Practices:
Developing and Using Models
Using Mathematical and Computational Thinking
Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information
Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
Engaging in Argument from Evidence
NGSS Connections to Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science:
Interdependence of Science, Engineering, and Technology
NGSS Connections to Nature of Science:
Science Models, Laws, Mechanisms, and Theories Explain Natural Phenomena
Scientific Knowledge Assumes an order and Consistency in Natural Systems


1. Read the introductory background information "When Nature Strikes - Tornadoes" and view the accompanying video.
2. Open the "Tornado Activity" and the "Tornado Activity Sequencing Images" (in the materials list to the right.) View the set of images from the 2010 Rice TX tornado and try to place them in the correct in order.
3. To check your answers, view the "2010 Rice Tornado Images."
4. If time and interest permit, carry out the extension activity to share what you have learned about tornado safety with younger children.


Assess the students' responses to the questions throughout the lesson. Use class discussion of this complex topic to gently correct any misconceptions. Develop an appropriate rubric for how students will present their results as they participate in the discussion.


Follow school guidelines for using computer-based activities. There are no lab safety issues.


No clean up is required.


Extention Activity - Sharing What You Know with Younger Students or a Community Group

Create a slideshow, video, or other presentation to educate younger students in your school system or a community group about tornadoes.

You should include answers to these questions:

  • How likely is your State to have a tornado? Your Community?
  • Which States have the most tornadoes? Least?
  • What have been some of the strongest tornadoes ever observed?
  • What government agency has official responsibility to issue warnings?
  • What is a tornado advisory? Tornado watch? Tornado warning?
  • What should every school and home have to receive notices of approaching storms?
  • What should people in your community do if a tornado warning is issued?

Here are selected links that may help you to get started:
Jet Stream Online School for Weather -- Tornadoes
National Severe Storms Lab -- Tornadoes
National Weather Service - Tornado Safety
Weather Wiz Kids Tornado Safety
Tornado Safety Rules


When Nature Strikes - Tornadoes Introduction

Perhaps the most terrifying natural hazards are tornadoes. "Sudden," "huge," "devastating," "unpredictable" - these only partly describe why people fear these storms. Unlike hurricanes, which can affect large regions over many hours or days, tornadoes are relatively small and short-lived. But some can last for hours and leave widespread death and destruction in miles-long paths. Damage can seem to be random: houses on one side of a street may be ripped apart, yet those on the other side are unaffected. Most are single events, but some occur in clusters that include dozens of separate events, such as the Super Outbreak of 1974.

A tornado is, basically, a violently rotating column of air (vortex) descending from thunder-storms. Like many weather events, thunderstorms which may spawn tornadoes follow a characteristic life cycle. There are also "tornado look-alikes" which people often confuse with actual tornadoes. The "When Nature Strikes" video explains that scientists still do not understand why some storms produce the funnel clouds of tornadoes, but similar systems do not. Numerous research projects seek to understand why mesocyclones in supercells produce the most destructive and deadly tornadoes.

Development of a tornado appears to require three 'ingredients': moisture in the air, an upward lift, and instability, the tendency to keep rising. Conditions forming tornadoes can develop so rapidly that an area where no vortex existed could, only a few minutes later, be impacted by damaging winds, hail, and other hazards. Their speed and relatively small size make forecasting tornadoes very difficult.

Tornadoes occur in most parts of the US, with the greatest frequency in the southeast.

The best weather technology to detect tornadoes is Doppler radar. Doppler radars send out invisible beams of radio waves that bounce off clouds, falling rain or snow, and other parts of the atmosphere. The returning echoes are analyzed with sophisticated computer programs and displayed on screens so that meteorologists can interpret atmospheric conditions. The National Weather Service and others operate Doppler radar sites that cover almost all of the country.

What meteorologists look for to identify tornadoes is a "hook echo".

The NWS describes the intensity of tornado damage with the "Enhanced Fujita Scale." In recent years, the NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) has enhanced their hazardous weather forecasting and warning decision-making capabilities through its Multi-Radar/Multi-Sensor Systems (MRMS) project. MRMS combines data from multiple radars, surface and upper air observations, lightning detection systems, satellites, and computer forecast models. This has greatly improved the ability to recognize conditions involving tornadoes, turbulence, icing, and other weather hazards.



Last modified April 28, 2016 by Jennifer Bergman.

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA