Tornado in a Bottle

Summertime is tornado time in much of the U.S. Spring weather brings severe thunderstorms, which spawn twisters in midwest and eastern states. For me, this post is especially timely. A tornado struck the downtown area of my parents’ hometown just a couple of days ago. Fortunately no one was injured.

In our house, we love to read about weather and our world. We just finished Mary Kay Carson’s Inside Tornadoes, another fantastic book in Sterling’s series. (See my previous post about Melissa Stewart’s Inside Volcanoes.) We learned the deadly mix of ingredients that spells recipe for disaster: windshear (layers of wind moving in opposite directions) and thunderstorms, which together can form a mesocyclone, a nursery for tornadoes. It’s no wonder that most tornadoes strike in May and June in areas where spring rains are prevalent (fortunately not in California). We also learned about tornadoes’ destructive power, including winds of 200 mph or more that can level entire towns in minutes.

In her book, Carson includes a safe way for children to experience a tornado — in a bottle. I’ve modified her activity, based upon our experience.

What you’ll need:

  • Cookie sheet
  • Two empty, 2-liter bottles
  • Duct tape
  • Water
  • Food coloring (your choice)

What you do:

  • Use the cookie sheet as your workspace to capture any water that leaks.
  • Fill one 2-liter bottle 3/4 of the way full with water.
  • Add a few drops of food coloring, recap the bottle and shake to mix.
  • Remove the cap from the bottle. Invert the second, empty bottle, and place it upside down on top of the first bottle. Use duct tape to secure the two bottles together.
  • Now carefully flip the bottles over, so the bottle full of water is on top. We found holding the bottles where the duct tape was worked best.
  • Give the bottle a little swirl to help your funnel cloud form.

Sterling’s Inside series is a great resource. The books are a conversation-starter for weather emergencies and disaster plans at home. Though we don’t get tornadoes, we discussed our major weather emergency — earthquakes — and what we would do if we had one. If you need a place to start, check out this FEMA site.

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17 responses to “Tornado in a Bottle

  1. Cool idea. I think we tried this when one of the kids was in third grade. I have yet to experience one personally, but once my son’s class was returning from a field trip with a tornado in their wake. So scary!

  2. So that’s why there are a few round here too. We get quite a few storms because we’re in a gully. Glad your parents are okay and I’ll try that craft, thanks Kirsten.

    • Enjoy the craft. It does get a little splashy, but it’s easy and fun. It’s quite interesting…most of the western U.S. is relatively tornado free. Midwest is “tornado alley” and the east gets a few.

  3. I love this experiment! Thanks for the info on the Tornado. I heard at school to day that there was a tornado warning on Friday or Saturday in our county in PA. Luckily, I was in another county at the time.

    • Paul, I grew up in a military family, and my mom was an elementary school teacher. My brother, sister and I were exposed to arts, other cultures and loads of books. Oh, the stories I could tell. So part of my interest is grounded in how I was raised. My older son, Cooper showed an early interest in science, especially Mars and space. So, like any good parent, I’ve nurtured that interest with books, hands-on science, trips to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, etc.

      • Great to hear. Always interested to hear what prompts certain behaviors in people. Seems like your love of books was definitely nurtured via your mother.

      • Both my parents are avid readers. They kept a lot of books, and when I was in high school, I remember pulling random books from the bookshelf: Shakespeare, Pushkin, Flaubert. I keep all my books too, and my justification is that the boys might want to read them someday!

  4. Last year my son was given the Science Award at his preschool. Instead of getting a certificate, the teacher gave him a plastic doohickey that allows you to screw two soda bottles together to make the tornado effect you described.

    Did it turn out to be the best bath toy ever? Why, yes, yes it did.

    • After trying to do it with duct tape, a plastic doohickey would have made it a lot easier. I’m sure they sell them on Steve Spangler’s science site somewhere… Thanks for stopping by!

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