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Grades 6-8
In this lesson, students will learn about how tornadoes are formed and how they are rated according to intensity. They will explore various topics about tornadoes, including where they occur most frequently, what kind of damage they cause, how they are predicted, and current scientific research. Students will work both alone and in small groups to gain a better understanding of tornadoes.
Connections to the Curriculum:
Geography, earth science
Connections to the National Geography Standards:
Standard 7: "The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth's surface"
Standard 15: "How physical systems affect human systems"
Two to three hours

Materials Required:
Students will
  • learn where most tornadoes form and why;
  • map the ten deadliest tornadoes in history;
  • look at photographs and video clips of tornadoes and read news stories about them;
  • research tornadoes in small groups and present results to the class; and
  • write a newspaper article about a fictional tornado and its impact on a small town.
Geographic Skills:
Asking Geographic Questions
Acquiring Geographic Information
Answering Geographic Questions
Analyzing Geographic Information

S u g g e s t e d   P r o c e d u r e
Tornadoes can occur anywhere in the world and at any time of the year, but they are most common in the United States, particularly in the area known as "tornado alley." Point out this area on a wall map. Explain that although most tornadoes are weak, the rare violent ones can devastate entire towns with their ferocity. Ask students if any of them has seen or lived through a tornado, or known someone who has. What was the experience like?
Have students go to this map of world tornadoes and agricultural areas and read the caption.

Next, have students go to the National Geographic News story titled Deadliest Tornadoes and look at the "Ten Worst U.S. Tornadoes" sidebar. Ask students to mark and label the locations of these tornadoes on their blank outline maps of the United States . Does the distribution of these deadly tornadoes confirm what students have read about tornadoes and agricultural areas?

Have students form six groups. Ask each group to research one of the following questions in detail, using real-life examples where possible:

  • How do tornadoes form and die out?
  • How does the Fujita scale categorize tornadoes and the damage they cause?
  • Why are tornadoes so difficult to predict? Why is this a problem?
  • What methods are research scientists using to learn more about tornadoes?
  • What are the damages caused by tornadoes in the U.S. in the last five years, in terms of dollar amounts and in human lives?
  • What does the government do to help residents of communities hit by severe tornadoes?
The following Web sites will help students with their research:

National Geographic: Eye in the Sky—Tornadoes
National Geographic: Out There—Inside the Tornado
National Severe Storms Laboratory: Tornadoes
PBS: Online NewsHour—Killer Tornadoes in the Midwest
The Tornado Project
USA Today: Resources—Understanding Tornadoes

Have each small group present to the class the information they have gathered. They should have detailed information, but present it in a concise way, so that the rest of the class understands the major points.
Suggested Student Assessment:
Ask students to pretend they are reporters covering the story of a tornado that has just passed through a small town. They should choose a tornado that is rated an F3 or higher. The articles should include (but not be limited to):
  • a description of specific damage done, corresponding to the tornado's rating on the Fujita scale;
  • a human interest element (e.g. how kids will cope with the destruction of their school); and
  • an analysis of how the situation might have been different if the residents of the town had had more time to prepare for the tornado.
Extending the Lesson:
  • Ask students to write an essay from the point of view of a tornado survivor. What was the experience like? How did he or she take shelter? How will he or she prepare differently, knowing now what a tornado is like?

  • Ask students to imagine they are "stormchasers," people who follow tornadoes and try to learn more about them. What would students need in terms of equipment? What kind of educational background would prepare them for such a job?
Related Links: