About Nicole

Nicole has worked for HMNS in some capacity since 1996, whether part-time, full-time or as a volunteer. She taught for seven years in public school, including four years in Fort Bend and a short stint overseas. While she never taught science, she was always the teacher called when someone needed to remove a swarm of bees, catch a snake in the playground, or get the bat off the ceiling of the cafeteria.

Educator How-To: Mimicking weather with convection currents

There has been a lot of strange weather this spring. Temperatures in North Dakota reached -60°F — which is about the same temperature at the surface of Mars, and about 50°F colder than the North Pole on the same day. 

Meanwhile, in Australia, temperatures reached over 120°F! California is at its driest point since they started keeping records in 1849. And just recently, a bout of deadly tornadoes tore through the Midwest.

The rapid changes happening on the surface of the Earth, like hurricanes and tornadoes, and the slower changes happening under the Earth’s surface, like earthquakes and volcanoes, are as awe-inspiring as they can be terrifying.  Understanding the dynamic Earth helps us prepare for the worst that Mother Nature has to offer.

On that note, here’s a simple but really cool experiment you can do to get you started on the path to meteorology mastery. With a few simple items, you, too, can create a convection current.

Activity: Convection Currents

Materials:
-Large, clear container with a depth of at least two inches (a Pyrex loaf pan would work)
-Red and blue food coloring
-Ice cube tray and access to a freezer
-Water
-Electric kettle, stove or microwave to boil water
-Styrofoam cup to hold very hot water

Procedure:

  1. Dye water blue using food coloring (make it pretty dark). Then freeze in an ice cube tray. When you have your ice cubes made, move on to the remaining steps.
  2. Begin to heat water in an electric kettle. You’ll use it later on.
  3. Fill a clear container with tap water, and then set it on the table to settle. The water should be as still as possible, so try not to jostle the table.
  4. Carefully place a blue ice cube at one edge of the clear container. The blue ice makes it easier to see what happens to the cold water melting off of the cube. You should notice where the cold blue water goes in the clear container.  View the container from the side — your eyes should be about the same height as the water.
  5. Repeat this process again to make sure it isn’t a fluke! (It’s not…)
  6. The cold water tends to sink down. (It is denser — heavier for its size — than the room temperature water). So what do you expect warm water to do if we added some to the bowl? Let’s find out.
  7. Add several drops of red food coloring to the bottom of the plastic or Styrofoam cup. Pour approximately half a cup of heated water into the cup. Lower the cup close to the surface of the water near one edge of your demo tank, and pour a small amount of the hot red water into the tank. Try to pour it so it runs down the side of the container and try to disturb the water as little as possible.
  8. Does the red water do what you expected?

What’s Going On Here?

So how does this relate to the weather? Well, it’s all about convection!

Convection is the action of warm air rising and cold air sinking. You are using water to model some things that also happen in the atmosphere because sometimes air moves in similar ways to water. You probably guessed that the blue water represents a cold air mass and the red water represents the warm, unstable air mass.

A thunderstorm is caused by unstable air and convection plays an important part. A body of warm air is forced to rise by an approaching cold front. Other things can cause warm air to rise, like a mountain slope. In this experiment, the cold water sinks while the warmer red water rises, or stays higher than the blue.

Can’t get enough of the science of weather and natural disasters?  We’ve got four things to quench your thirst for all things weather!

1. In a new special exhibit open this summer, Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters, you will come face-to-face with the inside of a tornado, create your own volcano and earthquake, and witness the aftermath of several historical disasters. You’ll see why these events happen and how we study to better predict them.

2. On the lower level of the Museum, you can step in front of the camera and join KHOU Channel 11 News Meteorologist Chita Johnson for a severe weather update — with you as the weather reporter! It’s lights, camera, action! as you become the star of the show on a replica of the Channel 11 weather set!

3. Are you ready for nature’s fury? Force 5 in the Planetarium is your chance to survive three Category 5 storms — a hurricane, a tornado and a solar eruption — without any rain, wind or dangerous radiation. Discover the causes of weather catastrophes and venture into the middle of the action when nature goes Force 5!

4. For the smaller scientist in your family, check out Calamity Camp for 6 and 7 year olds and Nature Unleashed for 8 and 9 year olds. In Calamity Camp, you will tame a twister, battle a blizzard, hunt a hurricane and much more as you explore and experiment to discover nature’s awe-inspiring fury. Nature Unleashed is an exciting interactive journey to the center of the Earth, where we’ll explore earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and more!

No matter how you explore weather at HMNS this summer, you’ll be blown away!

Tales from Tanzania: Oh, the things you’ll find in a caldera

On the next leg of our trip, we visited the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

NgorongoroNow, you may ask, “Nicole, your last adventure was in a national park, and this is a conservation area — what’s the difference?” And I’d answer that a conservation area has people living on it, whereas in a national park, no permanent settlements are allowed. The Maasi people live in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area with their cattle full time. They have been allowed this exception since they do not hunt. According to their traditional customs, they are only allowed to eat cow, goat and sheep so the wild animals in the crater have nothing to fear from them.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is especially interesting, as it contains the largest unbroken caldera in the world. It was created by a volcano, which has now collapsed. Before it collapsed, the volcano would have been much, much higher than Kilimanjaro.

The formation of a caldera

The crater has given rise to a variety of ecosystems due to its geography and sheer size. Moisture is pushed in from the ocean in the east, but it gets caught at the rim of the crater. The outside eastern edge of the crater, therefore, is home to a thick highland forest full of tropical birds. The west side of the crater only gets rain in the rainy season and most of the time looks something like dry west Texas.

Interestingly, the crater is responsible for most of what we have seen and what we will be seeing on this trip. The eastern edge of the crater is so dense that natural springs flow into Lake Manyara rather than the crater, keeping it green and providing a source of water for animals.

Looking to the west, when the volcano erupted 2.5 million years ago, the wind blew the volcanic ash to the Serengeti, which caused hard-packed earth that only the acacia can penetrate.

Later in the evening, we were able to talk to crater naturalist, Yotham, at our hotel. He was very surprised to see several of our pictures (we always knew we were looking at something awesome if one of the driver guides took out a cell phone to take a picture).

In particular, Yotham was surprised to see our shots of the Little Bee Eater, as they usually don’t come into the crater. Instead, they live in the highland forests on the outside western edge.

DSCN1517DSCN1205As we continued to go through our shots, he indicated that we had, in fact, had a very, very good day of observations.

Here are some of the highlights: 

Hyena kill: We arrived right after the wildebeest was taken down. Just out of screen are several other hyenas and 20 or so vultures waiting for their turn at the carcass. The eating hyena kept dragging the carcass away so it could eat without feeling crowded.

DSCN1604Ostrich: So, I learned something new today. When you see a male ostrich with a bright pink neck, it is feeling frisky. A male ostrich with a white or gray neck is not currently interested. Female ostriches are very beautiful but very differently colored than the male ostriches.

DSCN2036DSCN2048Serval: This picture is a bit miraculous. The serval is normally a nocturnal animal, so it was amazing to see it out during the day. AND THEN IT STARTED HUNTING. AND IT WAS AWESOME.

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Tales from Tanzania: Water, bricks & the ingenuity of Tanzanians

The hard work and ingenuity of the Tanzanians never ceases to amaze me. While traveling one day, we passed the man you see in the photo below, and several more like him. When I asked Simon (my driver guide for the day) what was going on, he explained that they were hauling water.

A water pipeline is provided near every major road and you are welcome to connect to it — but if you do, you get a monthly bill. As most people are unable to afford the connection or the monthly bill, they collect water from the public water point in town and haul it to their homes.

DSCN1399A little while later we passed several structures like this one. Can you guess what it is?

DSCN1217Don’t worry, it took me a minute to figure it out too. It’s a brick furnace.

The locals in this area make bricks out of volcanic rock and clay. When the bricks are dry to the touch, they are stacked into a chimney and baked in place for three or four days in a slow, low fire furnace of their own making. When the bricks change to a dark red color, they are ready for use. They are said to be superior to cinder blocks (another favorite building material here) in every way because they have a bit of flexibility to them and won’t crumble in an earthquake.

Kwa heri!

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Tales from Tanzania: Witnessing the resiliency of nature at Lake Manyara National Park

Our first game drive through the 285 square miles (460 km2) of Lake Manyara National Park did not disappoint. Covering 89 square miles (231 km2) of the park, Lake Manyara is a salt lake ranging from 20 to 50 feet deep. The lake’s high alkalinity comes from sodium bicarbonate, which leaches out of the volcanic rock in which it sits.

When we arrived, the surrounding area had recently flooded, causing serious changes to the landscape in several ways. The most drastic had come from landslides so powerful they had nearly covered the original ranger office.

When the area flooded, the level of the lake also rose, causing the surrounding area to have significant deposits of sodium bicarbonate. This sudden change killed all of the trees in the flood area.

However, by the time of our visit we were able to witness the incredible resiliency of nature, as the area had already started to heal itself. This is helped by the many underground springs which bring in fresh water, giving the animals clean drinking water and clearing out the salt deposits. The grass is already making a comeback and the rangers are confident that the trees will soon follow.

While the flooding was terrible in so many ways, it might have done the area good, as it gets very little rain. Each year 75 percent of the lake evaporates in the dry season, which concentrates the salts. Hopefully the floods diluted the salts, if only for a short period. And as you can see in the following pictures, the animals hardly seem to have minded the flooding.

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The baboons in Africa amazed me. As far as I can tell, they are the equivalent of a diurnal raccoon in the states. They are smart, quick on the uptake, like eating leftovers, and aren’t afraid to come take something that is shiny or smells good. We didn’t have any troubles with them, but we were warned not to feed them and were told tales of cameras and other treasures lost to the unsuspecting.

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The second coolest things we saw that day was a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl with a fresh kill in its talons. It was surprising to see a diurnal owl here as most of ours are nocturnal.

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Being part of the science dork crew from the Museum, the coolest thing I think we saw that day was a hippo carcass. I was in a truck with a large animal vet that day, Mary Sue, so we spent a good bit of time trying to CSI the hippo. A clear indication that large predators are in the area, the hippo carcass was picked clean — except for the skin, which was too thick for anyone to eat.