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Primary Sources in Science Classrooms: Severe Weather and Community Resilience

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This post was written by Trey Smith, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Science Teacher in Residence.

Throughout human history, communities have contended with the consequences and costs of severe weather. Recent discourse about climate, sea levels, and weather events include both national and local-level conversations about building community resilience in response to severe weather. Primary sources can initiate deep learning about severe weather and community preparedness and responses.

Man standing on portion of seawall built after the hurricane and flood of 1900, Galveston, Texas
Man standing on portion of seawall built after the hurricane and flood of 1900, Galveston, Texas

Houston Daily Post, September 9, 1900
Houston Daily Post, September 9, 1900

Begin a unit on severe weather and resilience with a photograph from Galveston, Texas. Facilitate an analysis using the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool without revealing background information about the item up front. Students might wonder:

  • What is the structure the man is standing on? What is its function?
  • Is the structure complete?
  • When was the photo taken?

    Galveston disaster, relief party working at Ave. P and Tremont Street, 1900
    Galveston disaster, relief party working at Ave. P and Tremont Street, 1900

Then, share with students the photo’s bibliographic record, which mentions the 1900 Galveston hurricane and flood. Encourage students to generate questions for further investigation.

Support students in answering their questions by facilitating analyses of additional primary sources and secondary sources about the Galveston flood.

Encourage students to consider community responses and recovery efforts. After 1900, Galveston erected a seawall to protect against future storm surges. Photos show the seawall in 1910 and 1943, while a news story suggests that the seawall mitigated flooding in 1915. Students might wonder what role engineering should play in community resilience efforts.

Video of the Galveston power house and an article about downed communication systems can spur conversation among students about electrical grids, communication systems, and resilience. Students might wonder:

  • What systems do today’s communities rely on for electricity and communication?
  • What plans are in place if severe weather strikes?

Primary sources also reveal how severe weather affects other communities.

Articles in The St. Louis Republic from July 17 and July 31 describe the effects of the 1901 drought in the Midwest and Southeast. Newspaper articles that year also describe a heat wave that struck the Eastern U.S. and offer suggestions for staying safe. Students might compare these articles to modern news stories and resilience efforts.

Buried farm machinery. Cimarron County, Oklahoma Arthur Rothstein, 1936
Buried farm machinery. Cimarron County, Oklahoma Arthur Rothstein, 1936

Three decades later, the 1930s Dust Bowl devastated the Midwest. The Library’s Dust Bowl Primary Source Set and other photographs provide a look at this series of events and the ways in which weather events and human actions intersected to create a perfect storm. Primary sources about events like the Dust Bowl illustrate the interconnectedness of weather with social, cultural, economic, governmental, and environmental issues and themes. Resilience planning in communities similarly ties together scientific and engineering understanding with social and historical knowledge.

As students investigate severe weather further, they can explore scientific efforts to measure atmospheric conditions, discern patterns in collected data, and predict weather events. Incorporate items from the Library’s new Weather Forecasting Primary Source Set into lessons about engineering weather instruments and looking for patterns in weather data. Understanding weather aids in preparation and response efforts.

As you explore the Library’s collections, what items from the past about severe weather can inform resilience planning for the future?

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