October 2012 Teacher's Guide for Weather Foklore: Fact or Fiction? Table of Contents

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October 2012 Teacher's Guide for

Weather Foklore: Fact or Fiction?
Table of Contents

About the Guide 2

Student Questions 3

Answers to Student Questions 3


Anticipation Guide 5

Background Information 8

Connections to Chemistry Concepts 16

Possible Student Misconceptions 17

Anticipating Student Questions 17

In-class Activities 18

Out-of-class Activities and Projects 19

References 19

Web sites for Additional Information 20

About the Guide

Teacher’s Guide editors William Bleam, Donald McKinney, Ronald Tempest, and Erica K. Jacobsen created the Teacher’s Guide article material. E-mail: bbleam@verizon.net

Susan Cooper prepared the anticipation and reading guides.
Patrice Pages, ChemMatters editor, coordinated production and prepared the Microsoft Word and PDF versions of the Teacher’s Guide. E-mail: chemmatters@acs.org

Articles from past issues of ChemMatters can be accessed from a CD that is available from the American Chemical Society for $30. The CD contains all ChemMatters issues from February 1983 to April 2008.

The ChemMatters CD includes an Index that covers all issues from February 1983 to April 2008.
The ChemMatters CD can be purchased by calling 1-800-227-5558.
Purchase information can be found online at www.acs.org/chemmatters

Student Questions

  1. Why was the invention of the telegraph important to weather forecasting?

  2. What is the definition of dew point?

  3. Why is it less likely that water vapor will condense from warmer air?

  4. Explain the force that causes water vapor to condense.

  5. Why does dew form more often on clear nights?

  6. What color light is scattered the most by the Earth’s atmosphere?

  7. What are aerosols?

  8. Why do flowers have odor?

  9. The article cites two reasons why cats lick their fur. What are they?

Answers to Student Questions

  1. Why was the invention of the telegraph important to weather forecasting?

The telegraph enabled weather forecasters to send local weather observations over long distances, providing information for other forecasters to predict the kind of weather headed their way.

  1. What is the definition of dew point?

Dew Point is the temperature at which the air is saturated with water. That is, it’s the temperature at which water vapor condenses. Note that scientists often use the term “point” to refer to a temperature (as in melting point or boiling point).

  1. Why is it less likely that water vapor will condense from warmer air?

In air at a higher temperature both the molecules making up the air and water molecules are moving at greater velocities. These higher velocities prevent the attractive forces between the molecules from “taking over”. At lower temperatures the reduced velocities allow the forces to attract water molecules to each other, condensing the water to liquid form.

  1. Explain the force that causes water vapor to condense.

The force is primarily hydrogen bonding—the intermolecular force between hydrogen in one molecule (like water) and a very electronegative atom (like the oxygen in water) in another molecule. The polar covalent bonding between hydrogen and oxygen in the water molecule creates a partial positive charge near the hydrogen and a partial negative charge near the oxygen. Note that the electronegative atom has one or more unshared electron pairs, and the positive charge of the hydrogen is attracted to one of those unshared pair of electrons in the oxygen.

  1. Why does dew form more often on clear nights?

At night the earth radiates back into space the energy gained during the day. This happens most easily on a clear night. If, however, there are night-time clouds, some of the radiated energy is reflected back to Earth, keeping the overnight temperatures higher. On a clear night overnight temperatures are lower, making dew formation possible (making it more likely that the overnight low temperature will be lower than the dew point).

  1. What color light is scattered the most by the Earth’s atmosphere?

Blue light is scattered the most (actually violet light is scattered the most, but our eyes are not as sensitive to violet light as they are to blue light so we see the blue scattering more). Rayleigh scattering is inversely proportional to the wave length of light raised to the fourth power. Since blue light has a short wave length compared to the other colors in the visible spectrum, we see the sky as blue—blue light is scattered in all directions resulting in a blue color when we look skyward.

  1. What are aerosols?

Aerosols are small particles of dust, water, salt and other particulates that are suspended in the atmosphere. Aerosols scatter light and cause sunsets to appear red, much like the scattering caused by gases in the atmosphere.

  1. Why do flowers have odor?

Some molecules of any substance or object that has an odor escape from the substance in the form of a gas, either as a result of evaporation or sublimation. These molecules diffuse through the atmosphere, and if they reach people’s noses in sufficient concentration, people detect an odor. Odor, then, is gas molecules migrating from an object to our nose.

  1. The article cites two reasons why cats lick their fur. What are they?

Since cats do not have sweat glands they lick themselves to cool off. The water in cats’ saliva is deposited on their fur, and as the water evaporates it absorbs heat from the fur and cools them. The second reason is to reduce static electricity in their fur. Water reduces static electricity in the cats’ fur. For a more complete explanation of this phenomenon see “More on cats and weather.”

Anticipation Guide

Anticipation guides help engage students by activating prior knowledge and stimulating student interest before reading. If class time permits, discuss students’ responses to each statement before reading each article. As they read, students should look for evidence supporting or refuting their initial responses.
Directions: Before reading, in the first column, write “A” or “D” indicating your agreement or disagreement with each statement. As you read, compare your opinions with information from the article. In the space under each statement, cite information from the article that supports or refutes your original ideas.




  1. Scientific weather forecasting has been around for more than a thousand years.

  1. Water molecules are more likely to stick together in warm air.

  1. Dew forms for the same reason you can see your breath on a cold morning.

  1. Clouds help keep the earth warmer at night.

  1. The Earth’s atmosphere scatters red light more than blue light.

  1. When the sun is low on the horizon, the sun’s light must pass through more than 400 km of low atmosphere before reaching your eyes.

  1. Low pressure is associated with good weather.

  1. Gases escape from liquids and solids more readily with high pressure.

  1. Faster-moving fluids exert less pressure than still or slow-moving fluids.

  1. Cats do not have sweat glands.

  1. When cats lick themselves, the static electricity in their fur is reduced.

Reading Strategies
These matrices and organizers are provided to help students locate and analyze information from the articles. Student understanding will be enhanced when they explore and evaluate the information themselves, with input from the teacher if students are struggling. Encourage students to use their own words and avoid copying entire sentences from the articles. The use of bullets helps them do this. If you use these reading strategies to evaluate student performance, you may want to develop a grading rubric such as the one below.






Complete; details provided; demonstrates deep understanding.



Complete; few details provided; demonstrates some understanding.



Incomplete; few details provided; some misconceptions evident.



Very incomplete; no details provided; many misconceptions evident.


Not acceptable

So incomplete that no judgment can be made about student understanding

Directions: As you read, complete the chart below to describe the science behind the weather-related folklore.


Scientific explanation

Is the folklore accurate?

“When grass is dry at morning light, look for rain before the night. Dew on the grass, rain won’t come to pass.”

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”

“Flowers smell best just before rain.”

“If cats lick themselves, it means good weather is on its way.”

Background Information

(teacher information)

More on weather history

The premise of this article is to examine samples of traditional weather lore to determine if they have any scientific basis. Prior to the advent of modern meteorology and scientific weather forecasting people made personal observations of natural events in order to predict short-term weather. As early as 650 BC the Babylonians used the appearance of clouds to predict upcoming weather. Recurring astronomical events such as moon phases and other cyclic patterns were also often used as the basis for attempting weather predictions.
In 340 BC Aristotle wrote Meteorologica, which included theories about the formation of rain, clouds, hail, wind, thunder, lightning, and hurricanes. Aristotle’s ideas were used as the basis for weather predictions until at least the 1600s, when scientific developments like the thermometer and barometer permitted scientists to actually measure properties of the atmosphere and correlate them to changes in weather. Even in ancient times some crude weather measurements were made. For example, during the Shang Dynasty in China humidity was measured by exposing charcoal to the air and measuring the increase in weight.
But the consistent use of measurements to predict weather began in the 17th century. Galileo invented a rudimentary thermometer around 1600, and in 1643, Torricelli invented the barometer. Galileo’s thermometer was called a thermoscope, and it relied on what we now know as Charles’ Law to measure “heat” (temperature). This description from a contemporary of Galileo illustrates how it worked:

“He took a small glass flask, about as large as a small hen's egg, with a neck about two spans long [perhaps 16 inches] and as fine as a wheat straw, and warmed the flask well in his hands, then turned its mouth upside down into the a vessel placed underneath, in which there was a little water. When he took away the heat of his hands from the flask, the water at once began to rise in the neck, and mounted to more than a span above the level of the water in the vessel. The same Sig. Galileo had then made use of this effect in order to construct an instrument for examining the degrees of heat and cold.”

By the mid-1600’s a liquid-in-glass thermometer had been invented and by the mid-1700s both the Fahrenheit and Celsius temperature scales were established.
Torricelli, who was an assistant to Galileo in the final three months of Galileo’s life, was working on improving water pumps of the time. Instead of a column of water, Torricelli used mercury in a glass tube and discovered that the column of mercury supported by the atmosphere was about 76 cm and that the length of the column varied from day to day. In this way Torricelli invented the first barometer in 1643. These and other measurement devices were improved and refined over the next 150 years, and ultimately enabled research-based predictions of weather as opposed to relying on local observations by individuals.
During the second half of the 18th century chemists contributed to what was known about the atmosphere with the discovery of many gases like oxygen and nitrogen, and discovery of the chemical composition of water. The work of Priestley (Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air), Cavendish (composition of the atmosphere), Scheele (discovery of oxygen), Lavoisier (the role of oxygen) and others were important here.
The invention of communication devices like the telegraph also permitted observations made at multiple locations to be shared quickly, this giving rise to weather maps and systemic predictions of the weather. Formal weather observing stations followed and, by the time of the Civil War, modern weather forecasting had begun.

A major development in weather forecasting was the invention of the radiosonde, a small lightweight box that is tied to a hydrogen or helium balloon that rises in the atmosphere. As it rises the radiosonde measures temperatures and pressures at regular altitudes and transmits the data back to earth for use in developing weather maps. (See image at left for an early U.S. weather map from NOAA.) For a detailed history of the radiosonde see http://www.sil.si.edu/smithsoniancontributions/HistoryTechnology/pdf_lo/SSHT-0053.pdf.

By the early 1900’s attempts were made to forecast weather by means of developing and solving mathematical equations that were based on known weather patterns. These early mathematical models required more computing power than was available until the advent of an early version of a computer that enabled a 24-hour prediction of the weather by a team of scientists in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1950. By 1960, weather satellites were being used to help predict weather, and today satellites are the major tools for forecasters.

More on dew formation
Your students will know from reading the article that the formation of dew is a change of phase from gas to liquid. They will also likely know about the hydrologic cycle—that interconnected system of evaporation and condensation that determines so much of the world’s weather. Dew formation is one small sub-cycle of that larger process. Evaporation and condensation are physical changes that results from molecules interacting with each other and gaining or losing energy. This excerpt from the ChemMatters Teachers Guide from the October, 2005 edition provides some theoretical background on change of phase:

This review will remind students that in all phases of matter molecules are in constant random motion. As a result of this motion, molecules have kinetic energy, which can be shown by the equation: K.E. = ½ mv2

The equation could be used to calculate the kinetic energy of a single molecule. However, the molecules in a sample of a matter have a range of kinetic energies with some molecules moving faster and some moving more slowly. The conventional method of indirectly measuring the kinetic energies of all the molecules in the entire sample is by measuring the temperature of the sample and assuming that this represents the average of all these energies.

A range of intermolecular attractions constrain molecular motion in liquids (see below). These attractive forces are London dispersion forces, dipole-dipole interactions and hydrogen bonding. Each of these forces is relatively weak compared to intramolecular covalent or ionic bonds, but each is strong enough to influence the motion of molecules in solids and liquids. So the intermolecular forces hold molecules together and limit their motion.

In liquids the molecules are free to move around in a limited way, and in gases the molecules move independent of each other (in ideal gases). The process in which a liquid undergoes a phase change to a vapor is called vaporization. If the process takes place at or near room temperature, we tend to call the process evaporation, even though a liquid can evaporate over a wide range of temperatures.
If we look at evaporation at the molecular level, we can focus on the surface of the liquid, which is where evaporation occurs. Molecules on the surface of the liquid are in motion, like all liquid molecules, and they have a range of kinetic energies. They are also held together by one or more of the intermolecular forces. Energy must be added to the molecules in order to overcome these intermolecular forces, so evaporation is, therefore, an endothermic process. In the case of a liquid at ambient temperature, the added heat is drawn from the immediate environment in contact with the liquid. Because of this, we say that evaporation is a cooling process. A better statement of the phenomenon is that an evaporating liquid cools its surroundings.

When dew forms the phase change is, of course, from gas to liquid, and the process is called condensation. There are two important ways in which this process takes place in the atmosphere. The first is the cooling of water-laden air as it rises and expands higher up in the atmosphere. The cooling of the air causes the water vapor molecules to slow down, allowing their intermolecular forces to attract them together into liquid droplets, and when droplets of water become massive enough they fall to earth as rain. The second case of atmospheric water vapor condensation occurs near the Earth’s surface. As the temperature of the atmosphere decreases during overnight hours the water molecules in the lower atmosphere lose kinetic energy. Reducing the velocities of the water molecules allows the intermolecular forces referred to in the excerpt above to take over and bring the molecules closer together forming a liquid on solid surfaces at or near the ground. The resulting liquid is called dew, or in the case of very cold atmospheric and ground temperatures, frost.

The temperature below which water vapor in the atmosphere will condense to a liquid is called the dew point (or dew point temperature). It is a measure of the absolute amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. Another way of defining dew point is the temperature at which the atmosphere is saturated with water vapor. In molecular terms it is the temperature at which there is an equilibrium between the number of molecules condensing and the number evaporating. At any lower temperature, condensation is favored.
The amount of water in the soil and air, the presence or absence of wind and clouds and the ambient temperature all affect dew formation. As described above, the dew point measures the amount of moisture in the air. The formation of dew in any locale is influenced by the moisture content of the soil in the area and this, of course is influenced in turn by prior rainfall. Soil with higher moisture content releases more water vapor into the atmosphere, thus raising the humidity and dew point in that area. Dew is much less likely in a region that has not seen rainfall for days or weeks.
The clouds that keep the Earth’s temperature higher at night (by preventing neat from radiating into space) are the key to this connection. If it is cloudy, there is a much higher likelihood of rain. If it is humid and if it is windy, that indicates unstable weather fronts and the likelihood of rain.

Weather forecasters now prefer dew point over relative humidity as the measure of the water vapor content of the air. Relative humidity is a measure of the ratio of moisture in the air compared to the maximum, expressed as a per cent. The problem with using relative humidity is that as temperature rises, relative humidity decreases because even as the temperature rises in a given air mass, the absolute amount of moisture in that air remains constant, at least temporarily until more water vapor is formed. Dew Point, however, is independent of ambient temperature. For a table that relates relative humidity, temperature and dew point, see http://www.buildwithbps.com/assets/downloads/resources/Dewpoint%20Chart.pdf. To see in a graphic way the relationship between temperature, relative humidity and dew point go to http://www.dpcalc.org/.

More on “Red Sky at night . . . . “
As the article states, this bit of weather lore requires an understanding of visible light and how it behaves as it passes through the atmosphere on its way from the sun to the earth. The sun radiates energy across a wide spectrum of frequencies and wave lengths. We identify certain types of this electromagnetic radiation according to their frequencies and wave lengths. Some of those types of radiation are illustrated below:

From http://science.hq.nasa.gov/kids/imagers/ems/waves3.html

The article describes colors that are visible to the human eye, so the part of the spectrum we are interested in is the visible spectrum:

(from http://science.hq.nasa.gov/kids/imagers/ems/visible.html)

We call the colors of the visible spectrum red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, although these names are arbitrary. It is the wave lengths and frequencies, not names, which distinguish one type of light from another. For light, wave length and frequency are inversely related—as wave length increases, frequency decreases, according to the equation:
c = ()() c = velocity of light,  = wave length,  = frequency
Note in the spectrum above that at the red end of the visible spectrum the wave lengths are longer than at the violet end (and so the frequencies are lower). See table below for wave lengths of light in the visible region of the spectrum.

The Visible Light Spectrum


Wavelength (nm)


625 - 740


590 - 625


565 - 590


520 - 565


500 - 520


435 - 500


380 - 435

It is this difference in the frequency and wave length of colors near the red end of the spectrum and violet end of the spectrum that result in reddish sky colors near sunset.

Many of your students will know that when light strikes matter one of five things can happen—the light can be absorbed, transmitted, reflected, refracted or diffracted. Light scattering is caused by reflection, refraction or diffraction. For example, opaque objects absorb some wave lengths of light and reflect others. The wave lengths of light that are reflected are the colors the object appears to be to the naked eye. So an object that we see as red absorbs all wave lengths other than red, which it reflects. Much, but not all of the light radiated by the sun is transmitted through the atmosphere to the Earth. Some of the light, however, is actually reflected, refracted or diffracted as it interacts with molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere. These are the possible mechanisms of scattering light so that the sky appears reddish at sunset.

The most common molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere are gaseous oxygen and nitrogen. Both of these molecules have the ability to absorb light from the sun and re-emit the light in a variety of directions. In this way, some of the light from the sun is effectively reflected and scattered by molecules in the atmosphere. This type of scattering is called Rayleigh scattering. It turns out that light with shorter wave lengths is scattered the most.

A second reason for light scattering in the atmosphere is the presence of aerosols, which are very small particles of matter suspended in the atmosphere. Chemically they are most like colloids, with particle size ranging from approximately 0.01 µm to 100 µm. The three main sources or atmospheric aerosols are volcanic activity, desert storms and human industrial activity. Aerosols include volcanic ash and dissolved sulfur dioxide gas from volcanoes, minute grains of dust blown from desert surfaces and sulfate ions created by human industrial activity. Other forms of aerosols include salt spray from the ocean, water particles, particles of smog, soot, and smoke.

How does this affect the color sky we see? Let’s consider the sky at noon. Because light in the blue region of the spectrum has shorter wave length (higher frequency) it is scattered the most. So a lot of light from the blue-violet region of the spectrum is scattered toward the Earth by oxygen and nitrogen molecules. So we see the sky as blue. Why not purple, which has a shorter wavelength than blue light? That’s because our eyes are much more sensitive to blue wave lengths than to violet. Why does the sun appear yellow in a blue sky? When the sun is overhead light in the yellow-to-red part of the spectrum passes through the atmosphere directly with a minimum of scattering. So we see the sun as a yellow object in the sky.

But we know from the article and our own experience that the sun seems to change color at times as it nears the horizon as sunset approaches. Why is this? It also turns out that the more particles encountered by the light, the greater the scattering. In addition, light of longer wave lengths is scattered near sunset much more than at midday when the energy from the sun travels the shortest route to the earth. As the sun approaches Earth’s horizon, however, light passes through more of the atmosphere as it travels more tangentially through the atmosphere and so encounters more molecules. The blue-violet light is scattered so much that it disappears as a visible sky color. Now the yellow-red end of the spectrum is scattered enough to give the setting sun and the sky around it an apparent reddish color—“red sky at night.”

As the articles says, if light is being scattered so as to produce a reddish sunset, there must also be accompanying high atmospheric pressure, indicating a more stable air mass present or approaching. If at sunset a lower pressure air mass dominates the region, air will rise, causing cloud formation which will obscure the setting sun and cause the aerosols to be swept upward and resulting in a significant decrease in scattering. For this reason the article claims the lore is true.
More on flowers and aroma
In general, odor is the result of molecules leaving an object or substance, diffusing through the air and reaching the olfactory epithelium which is located on the roof of our nasal cavity. Molecules that produce odor are typically small (less than 300 Da), dissolve easily in non-polar solvents and are associated with liquids that are volatile, meaning that the compounds have relatively high vapor pressures. Most molecules that create scents are also not water soluble. These molecules separate from the plant easily, whereas water-soluble compounds remain dissolved within the plant and are often important components in the plant’s biology. Flowers contain compounds made up of molecules with these characteristics. Many floral scents are actually a combination of multiple volatile compounds.
We tend to think of these compounds as oils—“essential oils” in the language of florists and perfumists. In many cases the oils are stored in the cells of plants, but may also be stored in leaves (mint) or flowers (roses). In most flowers the plant is structured so as to allow easy transfer of essential oils by anything—including animals and people—coming in contact with the plant, thus allowing the essential oils to be spread over distances and, in turn, potentially attract bees to pollinate the flower.

As the article describes, an aromatic compounds in a flower evaporate readily, forming gases that are usually denser than air, resulting in the odor-causing molecules remaining in the vicinity of the flower and near the ground. Natural diffusion and wind currents, however, will eventually disperse the scent over longer distances which will attract pollinators back to the flowering plant—the basic biological purpose of the scent. The volatility of floral molecules is the result of the molecules being weakly attracted to each other, primarily by London dispersion forces, weak intermolecular forces resulting from shifting electron densities within molecules.

Aromatic compounds—in this case compounds that produce an aroma, not compounds with a conjugated ring structure—are chemically diverse. Many floral scents are the result of chemical esters, combinations of acids and alcohols. Within the ester, the alcohol is thought to be the cause of the scent. Other classes of chemical compounds associated with floral scent are: fatty acid derivatives, benzenoids, phenylpropanoids, isoprenoids, nitrogen- and sulfur-containing compounds. Although not associated exclusively with the scent of flowers, there are several other structural changes that are able to affect the odor of volatile organic compounds:
Length of the carbon chain within an aliphatic molecule

Addition of a functional group to a basic structure—alcohol, aldehyde, ketone and acid

Location of the functional group in the compound

Exchanging a basic aliphatic structure with an aromatic ring

Altering the stereochemical nature of the molecule
As the article describes, odor-causing molecules evaporate from the essential oils in flowers and diffuse into the atmosphere around the flower. Lining the roof of the nasal cavity is the olfactory epithelium. Some of the floral molecules are inhaled and reach this mucous membrane, dissolve in it, couple with odor receptors in the lining and send messages to our brain, which interprets the messages as aromas. A given molecule might link up with several different receptors resulting in an overall odor that has multiple components. The brain integrates the components into one over-riding odor.

The strength of the odor depends on the concentration of floral molecules in the air around the flower. The concentration depends on the rate of evaporation, which, in turn, depends on the vapor pressure of the essential oil in the flower. The molecules in liquids with higher vapor pressures have weaker intermolecular forces—the London dispersion forces mentioned above. But if the gas above the essential oil exerts a higher pressure on the liquid the rate of evaporation will be reduced. In the case of flowers that gas is the atmosphere. So if atmospheric pressure is high, floral molecules will evaporate more slowly because the gas molecules in the air strike the surface of the essential oil more frequently, making it more difficult for the oil molecules to escape. Lower atmospheric pressure means that oil molecules evaporate more rapidly, resulting in higher concentration in the atmosphere and a stronger aroma. Lower atmospheric pressure tends to correlate to unsettled or stormy weather since lower atmospheric pressure allows air to rise, cool and condense into clouds and potentially precipitation. So the aroma of flowers may be more concentrated before a storm.

More on cats and weather
Humans use the evaporation process to help keep them cool in hot weather. Sweat glands in the skin secrete a salt-water solution which we call sweat directly onto the skin surface. The water evaporates naturally and helps to cool the body. This paragraph, quoted earlier in this Teachers’ Guide, explains how an evaporating liquid (like water) can cool its surroundings.
If we look at evaporation at the molecular level, we can focus on the surface of the liquid, which is where evaporation occurs. Molecules on the surface of the liquid are in motion, like all liquid molecules, and they have a range of kinetic energies. They are also held together by one or more of the intermolecular forces. Energy must be added to the molecules in order to overcome these intermolecular forces, so evaporation is, therefore, an endothermic process. In the case of a liquid at ambient temperature, the added heat is drawn from the immediate environment in contact with the liquid. Because of this, we say that evaporation is a cooling process. A better statement of the phenomenon is that an evaporating liquid cools its surroundings.

Cats, unlike humans, do not have sweat glands, but are still able to cool themselves by evaporative cooling, as the article describes. By depositing saliva, which is mostly water, on their fur, cats create their own evaporative cooling system. The saliva evaporates from their fur and in the process draws heat from the fur, cooling them in warm weather.

Students may already know from an earth science course that evaporation is one way the Earth cools its atmosphere. They likely know that in the summer the air is cooler near a body of water like a lake or the ocean. As the water in the lake or ocean evaporates, the process draws heat from the surrounding air, cooling the air. Students will also know that they feel cooler, maybe even cold, immediately after swimming. The drops of water on their skin evaporate and cool them off naturally. Evaporative cooling has also developed as a technology to cool buildings, especially those in the southwestern United States where the air is relatively dry. In this method of cooling an absorbent material is saturated with water and a fan then blows air over the material. As water evaporates the air around it is cooled, and the cool air is circulated through the building.

The article also describes cats licking their fur to remove static charge and states that this behavior may predict good weather ahead. Your students will know that the atoms making up all matter are themselves made up of protons, electrons and neutrons. Protons carry positive charge and electrons carry negative charge. Normally, all objects are electrically neutral. That is, they have the same number of electrons as protons. Students probably also know that opposite charges exert an attractive force on each other and like charges exert a repelling force on each other.
As substances undergo chemical changes we know that electrons can move from one substance to another. However, in chemical changes the resulting substances are also electrically neutral. You may need to remind students why it is only electrons that are transferred—they occupy the “outside’ of the atom, whereas protons are at the center of the atom and are, therefore, much less accessible.
It is also possible to move electrons from one material or object to another simply by bringing the two materials in contact. When this happens there is an imbalance of charge in both materials, a condition we call static electricity. Students have probably rubbed balloons on their clothing and discovered that they “stick” to the wall, or they have walked across a carpeted room and receive a shock when they touch a metal object or a person or their cat. In the case of the balloons, electrons are transferred to the balloon making it more negative than the wall—attraction. In the case of walking across a carpet and touching a metal object, electrons are transferred to the person and when the person touches a good conductor of electricity the electrons leave, causing a discharge and a mild shock.

We commonly think about rubbing two materials together to produce static electricity, but rubbing is only required to increase the efficiency of charge transfer. For example, if you simply fasten a strip of adhesive (Scotch) tape to a smooth surface, remove it and bring your finger near the tape, it will either attract or repel the tape. Rubbing becomes more important when one or both objects have minimal surface area, like animal fur or if one of the materials is an electrical insulator which “holds” its electrons more strongly than conductors. In the case of insulators it is, in fact, necessary to rub them in order to transfer electrons.

Cats develop a charge on their fur by rubbing against blankets, couches, carpet and other items in the house. Symptoms include fur sticking up and out in all directions and the cat getting shocked when it touches a human or other animal. Cats are not harmed by these shocks. As the article says, cats lick themselves to eliminate or reduce the static charge on their fur. The cats’ saliva is an electrical conductor (it’s mostly water but contains dissolved electrolytes which make it a conductor). Cats’ fur is an electrical insulator and will hold a charge. However, the very thin layer of saliva that adsorbs to the fur conducts excess charges and distributes them throughout the saliva, preventing any buildup of charge on the fur. In general, under humid conditions water vapor molecules condense and form a very thin layer of water on surfaces, including those insulators that ordinarily would take on a static charge. This thin layer of water is a conductor (as a result of dissolved contaminants in the water), and it serves to prevent local charge buildup.
As the article states, static charges are least likely to build up on cats’ fur when the weather is humid—when there is already a lot of water vapor in the air. An atmosphere with a lot of water vapor is less stable—more prone to precipitation and storms. On the other hand if the humidity is low the weather is likely to be good—except for cats whose fur is more likely to buildup static charges under those circumstances, causing them to lick themselves more to remove those charges.
Cat owners rely on several home remedies to counter static buildup on their pets. Running a humidifier in the house, especially in the winter months when indoor air is typically dry, keeps the humidity higher and static buildup lower. Pet stores sell anti-static spray for cats. Bathing cats in a shampoo with a high-moisture conditioners helps to reduce static, especially if the conditioner is designed to remain after the bath.

Connections to Chemistry Concepts

(for correlation to course curriculum)

  1. Change of phase—In the section of the article on dew formation, condensation is the important process. In the section on the aromas given off by flowers and the section on cats’ method of cooling themselves, evaporation (or sublimation in the case of flowers) is the important change.

  2. Hydrogen bonding—Hydrogen bonds are important in the condensation of water and the fact that it exists as a liquid under normal conditions.

  3. Electromagnetic spectrum—Understanding how light is scattered in the atmosphere requires a basic understanding of the wavelengths of visible light as part of the EM Spectrum.

  4. Matter-energy interactions—For all of the weather lore items in this article—evaporation, condensation, light scattering and static electricity--interactions between matter and energy are key elements in understanding the processes involved.

  5. Atmospheric chemistry—This article gives a number of examples of how chemistry concepts can be applied to the behavior of Earth’s atmosphere.

  6. Atmospheric pressure—In the cases of “red sky at night” and “flowers smell best” the role of atmospheric pressure is critical.

  7. Static electricity and charge—In order to understand how electrostatic charge builds up on cats’ fur, student should understand the basics of electrostatics.

Possible Student Misconceptions

(to aid teacher in addressing misconceptions)

  1. Dew is condensed water vapor and so is rain, so dew on the grass should predict rain, not the other way around.” While it is true dew is condensed water vapor and while it is also true that rain is condensed water vapor, the processes by which dew and rain are formed are very different. As the article states, dew is formed when the ambient temperature decreases during the night and falls below the dew point. Under these changing temperature conditions, dew forms. It should also be noted that dew forms near the ground. Rain, on the other hand, forms as low pressure air masses rise in the atmosphere, expand and cool. This cooling effect causes water vapor higher in the atmosphere to condense and precipitate.

  2. The sky is blue because it is reflecting the color of the oceans.” This is an old, and somewhat outdated misconception, but some students may be aware of it. See “More on red sky at night” for details on why the sky appears blue.

  3. The atmosphere has a ‘holding capacity’ for water which varies with temperature.” To read a very detailed explanation about humidity and air, see http://www.ems.psu.edu/~fraser/Bad/BadClouds.html.

  4. Static electricity is electricity that is not moving.” To read a detailed explanation of misconceptions like this see http://amasci.com/emotor/stmiscon.html#one.

Anticipating Student Questions

(answers to questions students might ask in class)

  1. What part of the atmosphere breaks up the white light coming from the sun?

Gas molecules in the atmosphere—molecules of nitrogen, oxygen and other gases interact with light to separate the visible colors of the spectrum. See “More on red sky at night . . . ” for details.
  1. Where does the water that forms dew come from? If I live in a location where there are no lakes, rivers or an ocean nearby, how could there be water vapor in the air?” All air contains some water vapor. Water that has evaporated from oceans or lakes can be carried thousands of miles by prevailing winds. It rains, at least a little, everywhere, and so some of the rainfall that is absorbed by the ground evaporates back into the air. Plants also give off water by evaporation (transpiration, in biology terms). In fact, about 10 per cent of all evaporated water is from plants. People return water to the atmosphere as a result of water in exhaled breath. So there are many ways in which water vapor is added to the air. You can read a procedure for collecting water from plants at http://www.wikihow.com/Collect-Water-From-Plants.

  2. Why do some substances have odor? What is odor, anyway?” What we call odor is the result of gas molecules stimulating our olfactory nerves. The gases are produced by some objects that are made up in part of volatile liquid or solid chemical compounds. These compounds evaporate from the liquids (sublime from solids) and the resulting gas molecules diffuse through the atmosphere and eventually reach our noses, creating the sensation of odor.

  3. Why does evaporation cause cooling?” In order for a liquid to evaporate, some of its molecules must overcome the attractive forces keeping the molecules together in the liquid phase. It is the faster-moving molecules that escape first. When a liquid loses its faster molecules the remaining molecules are, on average, moving slower than before, and this is observed as a decrease in temperature. Since the liquid is now at a temperature lower than its surroundings, heat flows into the liquid. Where does that heat come from? It comes from the substance(s) surrounding the evaporating liquid—cooling off the surrounding substance.

In-class Activities

(lesson ideas, including labs & demonstrations)

  1. ACS has an activity illustrating water condensation in its Middle School Chemistry collection http://www.middleschoolchemistry.com/lessonplans/chapter2/lesson3.

  2. The U.S. Department of Energy has a lesson plan on its ARM Web site that illustrates simple light scattering in a liquid. (http://education.arm.gov/teacher-tools/lessons/simple-light)

  3. The Exploratorium also has a lesson on light scattering accompanied by an explanation and an extension activity using polarizing filters. (http://www.exploratorium.edu/snacks/blue_sky/index.html)
  4. The University of Washington offers several experiments about odor for younger students. Included are basic detection of odors, concentration of odor and making perfume from flowers. (http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/chsmell.html)

  5. This site from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, http://www.omsi.edu/sites/all/FTP/files/expeditionnw/6.P.2.Cool.pdf, includes a procedure for making a cooling device from clay pots and a procedure for measuring wet and dry bulb temperatures to determine humidity.

  6. This site supplies eight procedures for doing experiments related to static electricity from the “comb-and-bits-of-paper” activity to the effect of charge on a stream of water to making an electroscope. (http://science-notebook.com/electricity01.html)

  7. Science Made Simple has four activities on static electricity—comb and cereal attraction, bending water, lighting a bulb and humidity and static electricity. (http://www.sciencemadesimple.com/static.html)

Out-of-class Activities and Projects

(student research, class projects)

  1. Students can be assigned to record the sky color each night for an extended period of time, along with the actual weather for the following day to accumulate data about the reliability of “red sky at night . . . “

  2. Students can collect data about how many days dew forms in their yard and correlate that data with overnight and day-following weather.

  3. Teams of students can prepare a report on visible light in the electromagnetic spectrum with each student taking one color of light and reporting on it.

  4. Individual students or teams of students can research aerosols and their effect on weather.

  5. Using this procedure, http://www.wikihow.com/Collect-Water-From-Plants, students can collect water from plants at home.


(non-Web-based information sources)

McCue, K. Beefing Up Atmospheric Models, ChemMatters, October, 2003 (3), pp 25–28, describes the way weather forecasters use mathematical modeling and computers to predict weather.
Becker, B. Cloud in a Bottle, ChemMatters, October, 2003 (3), pp16–17, gives the procedure and explanation for creating a cloud in a plastic soda bottle.
Kimbrough, D. How We Smell and Why We Stink, ChemMatters, 2001 (4), pp 8–10, explains why things have odor, the sense of smell and the olfactory mechanism.

Web sites for Additional Information

(Web-based information sources)
More sites on weather lore and the history of weather forecasting
This NASA site describes briefly the history of weather forecasting: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/WxForecasting/.
To read the text of Aristotle’s Meteorologica see http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/meteorology.html.
This site provides some background on important weather factors and describes many bits of weather lore like those in the article: http://wilstar.com/skywatch.htm.
More sites on the water cycle
The United States Geological Survey has a Web site devoted to the water cycle at http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/watercyclecondensation.html.
This article from USA Today describes the water cycle: http://www.usatoday.com/weather/tg/wevapcon/wevapcon.htm.

Although not directly related to dew formation, this page from Penn State dispels one misconception about the air’s “holding capacity” for water: http://www.ems.psu.edu/~fraser/Bad/BadClouds.html.

Even though this publication is a commercial handbook, it gives detailed information about humidity: http://www.southeastern-automation.com/PDF/Rotronic/Humidity_Handbook.pdf.
More sites on the electromagnetic spectrum and light scattering
NASA has a lot of material on their Web sites related to light and its behavior. You can review basics on this site on the electromagnetic spectrum at http://missionscience.nasa.gov/ems/01_intro.html.
NASA also has a Web site that gives more information about each of the colors in the visible spectrum at http://science-edu.larc.nasa.gov/EDDOCS/Wavelengths_for_Colors.html#violet.
Another NASA Web site gives details about electromagnetic energy: http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/science/know_l1/emspectrum.html.
This site from Middle Tennessee State University explains light scattering: http://mtweb.mtsu.edu/nchong/pm-atm3.htm.
The Library of Congress has a page on the idea of “red sky at night.” http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/weather-sailor.html
More sites on aerosols
NASA has a good explanation of aerosols here: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/factsheets/Aerosols.html.
This article from Wiley InterScience publications, explains the sources and effects of aerosols. (http://atmo.tamu.edu/class/atmo689-gs/lectureweek10/aerosolreview.pdf)
This report from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program details the importance of atmospheric aerosols: http://downloads.climatescience.gov/sap/sap2-3/sap2-3-final-report-all.pdf.
More sites on evaporative cooling

E-notes has an article on evaporative cooling, its history and applications, here: http://www.enotes.com/topic/Pot-in-pot_refrigerator.

More sites on static electricity
The Library of Congress has a page on electrostatics with links at the end to other useful resources. (http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/static.html)
This Science Made Simple site has a general explanation of static electricity and four activities for students to do: http://www.sciencemadesimple.com/static.html.
An excellent description and explanation of static electricity is provided by “The Physics Classroom” Web site at http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/estatics/U8L1a.cfm

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