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Family Science: Tornado in a Bottle

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We kicked off our Family Science series at the Children’s Center at 42nd Street by building our very own “tornado” in a bottle. It was a sell-out show with 30 children and their accompanying adults in attendance. But, if you were unable to join us, you can still make your own “tornado” at home.

So, what is a tornado?  A tornado is a spinning column of air between a storm cloud and the ground. Tornadoes form inside a very strong thunderstorm cloud. When two drafts of warm air coming from opposite directions meet the cold air in a storm cloud, they are pushed upward into the cloud and start to spin around each other. A funnel shaped column of air then reaches down toward the ground. When it touches the ground, a tornado is born. The funnel, or vortex, acts like a vacuum cleaner sucking up dirt, trees, cars, and whatever else is in its path.

Now let’s make our very own “Tornado in a Bottle.” Instructions are adapted from severe-weather-fan.com and sciencekids.co.nz.

You will need:

Two smooth-sided plastic bottles (cleaned and with their labels removed)
1/2 teaspoon glitter (for the debris that a tornado picks up)
duct tape

Instructions:

  1. Fill one bottle 2/3 full with water. The water level should come up no higher than where the bottle starts to narrow. 
  2. Carefully pour the glitter into the bottle of water.
  3. Flip the empty bottle over. Position the mouth of this bottle over the mouth of the water-filled bottle.
  4. Tape the two bottles together by TIGHTLY winding a piece of duct tape around the neck of the two bottles. To minimize leaks, make sure that there are no gaps between the mouths of the two bottles and that the joint between them is completely covered. You will want to repeat this step two to three times.
  5. Flip the bottles over so the water-filled bottle is on top. 
  6. Holding the bottles securely by the taped necks, swirl them in a circular motion.  Be careful — the water filled bottles are heavy.
  7. When you stop swirling, the water in the top bottle should form a tornado-shaped vortex as it falls into the bottom bottle.
  8. Congratulations! You have captured a “tornado” in a bottle.

Sue Yee & Jenny RosenoffSue Yee & Jenny Rosenoff

Special Note:

You can experiment with your tornado by putting different sizes of washers between the two bottles before taping them together. How much longer does it take for your tornado to spin into the other bottle? How much more tape do you need to keep it from leaking?

With kids walking out saying “So cool!!” and parents mentioning “You can do this for your science fair experiment,” we are delighted to have our Family Science series off to a fantastic start. We hope you can join us on Saturday, April 28, 2012 for our next program — The Science of Sleuthing.  We will learn about fingerprints, fingerprinting, and do some sleuthing of our own. Registration will begin Saturday, April 21.

If you liked this activity and want to learn more about tornadoes and extreme weather or if you’d like to read some stories that have tornadoes in them, take a look at this reading list.  There are books for all ages.

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