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Idea 3 What on Earth Should Happen to Picher Oklahoma

What on Earth Should Happen to Picher, Oklahoma?

This project idea was contributed by Jeff Stanfield

Exam Board Components that this project links with
AQA A Unit 1, Section A: Challenge of weather and climate
AQA B Unit 2, Section A: Living with natural hazards
Edexcel A Unit 1, Section A: General Skills
Unit 1, Section B: Challenges for the planet
Unit 3, Section A: Settlement change
Edexcel B Unit 1, Section A: Restless Earth
Unit 2, Section A: Population Dynamics
Unit 2, Section B: Changing Countryside
OCR A Unit A673: Similarities and differences
Unit A674: Issues in our fast changing world
OCR B Theme 2: Population and settlement
Theme 3: Natural Hazards
WJEC B Theme 3: People Work and Development

Setting the Scene

Today we live in a very fast changing, highly dynamic and interconnected world; the world of the techno-geographer. Digital learning resources allow us to ‘touch’ the world in which we live much more easily. A massive range of information on events such as Cyclone Nargis in Burma and the earthquake in Sichuan Province, China (7.9 on the Richter Scale with an epicenter 50 miles north of Chengdu, a city of a staggering 11 million inhabitants) is now in abundance for all searchers.

Digital Learning Resources (DLRs) allow for the collection and interrogation of a plethora of up-to-the-minute topical geographical information related, for example, to the disastrous events noted above. Access to images, film clips, pod casts, maps and diagrams, animations, information text, quotes, facts and figures all help students and staff to visualize places better; to have at their fingertips detailed information of the world in which they live.

Welcome to Picher

Picher is a small town in Ottawa County, Oklahoma. It is situated just north of Interstate 44 between Tulsa and Joplin Missouri. Check out its’ location using the mapping and aerial photography service on either Google Earth or Bing maps.

From the very early 1900s the discovery of large amounts of lead and zinc meant that the area around the present township of Picher became a boom zone. The last mine closed in the 1970s but many remnants of this golden era still exist. Contamination levels are thought to be amongst the worst in the country.

On April 24 2006, Reuters reported that Picher had been scheduled to be closed and all residents removed. Due in large part to the removal of large amounts of subsurface material during mining operations, many of the town’s structures were deemed to be in imminent danger of caving in.

On Saturday 10 May 2008 much of the town was destroyed by a tornado. Many people think that the devastation caused by the twister could be the final straw for the few remaining residents. Others are hopeful that the town will be re-established.

What on Earth should happen to Picher now? This scenario provides a catalyst to a challenging decision making activity which can be linked to the new GCSE specifications in a range of ways as shown in the following at the top of the page.

Key Geography Objectives

  • To analyse and understand the causes, consequence and human response to topical hazardous aspects of weather and climate
  • To collect, analyse and communicate geographical information
  • To make decisions based on geographical research

Key ICT Objectives

  • Investigation and collection of information from websites
  • Creation of animations/simulations – the causes and effects of tornados
  • Development of spreadsheets to show variations in demographic/socio economic data
  • Communicating geographical information

Running the Activity

Note: This style of activity can be developed for any topical catastrophic weather event happening, or due to happen. (Indeed it would suit many natural disasters). For example, this type of task could easily have been developed as an investigation of the impact of Hurricane Katrina on 29 August 2005, with students investigating the feasibility of redevelopment of parts of New Orleans.

Starter activity – This could take the form of a review of headline news, such as ‘Tornado could push out town’s last residents‘ in USA Today (14.05.08) or alternatively of Pod Casts or websites. Or how about a mystery aerial image (in this case of Picher) left on the interactive whiteboard? These could even be ‘before and after’ the event images.

Set the scenario with the students; as leading state planners, working in conjunction with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) they have to report back to the governor of Oklahoma and the leaders of Ottawa County on the viability of funding the rebuilding of Picher. The task outline can also be extended; for example by requiring them to put forward a range of strategies for dealing with the long term impacts of the twister. The activity can be undertaken individually or in small teams. It is crucial that students are given time to communicate and compare their findings with their peers.

Modifying the activity for different levels of ability

This task can be approached progressively, depending on the students’ familiarity with ICT, in the following manner:

Beginning with ICT: Members of the department download a range of materials and students use these sources in their decision making assignment. Alternatively, ICT resources could be listed for students to research and to gather materials to communicate their desk top published decision on Picher’s future.

More advanced: Students search sites independently and communicate their decisions using a wider range of presentational styles. Spreadsheets; to show differences in demographic and socio-economic data for Picher (made public on websites listed below). Plotting of the the course of the twister using electronic base maps. Pre and post tornado photo-montages, or perhaps a photo-montage showing changes in land use post mining decline. Podcasting of events at the time and the recollections of the inhabitants. Use of film animations to display findings.

Advanced: Students search electronic information sites independently and communicate their decision through the development of appropriate map based GIS.

Images of the Picher Twister and its aftermath, courtesy of Terry Gene Hembree

Website Links

Sites with more information about Picher and district:

Terry G. Hembree has lovingly put together this Memorial and Dedication Website for the town of Picher. This site contains photos, videos, quotes, stories and poems about the tornado and its effects on the town. See also his collection of hand-drawn cartoons and his other site all about the Tar Creek Superfund Buy-Out. Thanks to Terry for his permission to use the tornado pictures on this page.

Other sites of interest:
Wikipedia article about Picher
Picher on
Picher article on Ghostowns
Vintage photographs of Picher
The Creek Runs Red – Documentary film about Picher

There are also lots of videos of the twister on YouTube, just search for ‘Picher twister’ or ‘Picher tornado’.

Sites about storm detection:

NOAA Storm Prediction Center (U.S.)
Met Office Tropical Storms forecast (Worldwide)
Weather Underground (Worldwide)

The FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) site is also well worth a visit, especially if you are either comparing the human response to emergencies in MEDC and LEDC nations, or developing a hazard impact case study for an MEDC like the U.S.

Elsewhere on the GA site we have compiled resources, with links to websites that can help you teach about hazards and risk in the classroom. See, in particular, our resources on Earthquakes and Tsunamis and Flooding.

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