Natural Hazards: Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth

Time required to complete this unit:

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3 weeks, or 12.5 hours, or 750 minutes (estimated)

Earth Science Content:

Key Terms: Dynamic change, geohazard, flooding, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, meteorite impacts, climate variability, seismology, pyroclastic, tephra, storm surge

Unit Storyline

The Earth is in a constant state of change, with complex and dynamic subsystems interacting at different size, time and energy scales. Change may be sudden or gradual. In some cases, natural Earth processes produce earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, sinkhole collapse, and landslides. These catastrophic events are referred to as geohazards. Natural processes may also produce extreme climate or weather events such as flooding, drought, and storms (e.g., hurricanes). In the past, natural hazards shaped the history of human societies. Today, geohazards and extreme climate events disrupt our daily lives, especially as modern societies grow in size and occupy vulnerable areas. The experiences of past societies inform us about the potential consequences of geohazards and variations in climate and weather to our present society.

In the 21st century, Earth's changing climate is of a particular concern. We worry about the fragility of the Earth's present climate and the consequences of climate change on life, including humans and their cultures. This is a very real concern for two reasons. First, we know that most organisms live within a narrow range of possible climates on Earth and cannot adapt quickly to sudden changes in climate. Second, a growing body of research documents the impact of climate change on population growth and collapse, as well as the rise and fall of some civilizations. The experiences of past societies inform us about the potential consequences of climate change to our present society.

The timing of potentially catastrophic events and their impact on society must be understood so that communities can prepare and respond effectively in order to reduce the detrimental consequences of life on a ever-changing planet.

Developed by the DIG Texas Central Texas Development Team

Students will be able to (do)

  • Describe heat transfer through the hydrosphere and atmosphere, using hurricanes as an example.
  • Analyze and interpret geophysical data, such as seismic data, and weather and climate data.
  • Model the behavior of seismic waves.
  • Practice graphing skills and the application of triangulation, using data that they generate themselves.
  • Interpret Earth processes by examining satellite imagery, aerial photography, and topographic maps.
  • Evaluate the impact of changes in Earth's subsystems caused by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes, on the environment as well as on humans.
  • Generate maps using geospatial data.

Students will know

  • Changes occur over a range of time scales involving dynamic and complex interactions among Earth's subsystems.
  • Natural hazards potentially alter the environment and pose risks to humans.
  • Natural hazards shape the history of human societies.
  • Earth scientists use modern technology to monitor processes that produce geohazards and extreme weather events.
  • Near real-time geoscience data is used to respond to natural disasters worldwide.


The activities we have selected are congruent with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and are arranged to build upon one another. Therefore, to follow the storyline we recommend that teachers complete the activities in the order provided. To open an activity in a new tab or window, right click the activity link and select the preferred option.

Big Idea 8: Natural hazards pose risks to humans

View Activity

This video details the relationships between natural hazards, Earth's processes, and human civilizations. It is Big Idea 8 (of nine) in a series entitled "Big Ideas in Geoscience," created by the American Geosciences Institute to accompany the Earth Science Literacy Initiative's "Big Ideas."

Instructional Strategies: Lecture

Resource Type: Video

Time Required: 5 minutes

Rapid Earthquake Viewer

View Activity

The Rapid Earthquake Viewer (REV) is an online tool that provides access to authentic data from seismograph stations around the world. REV monitors global seismograph stations and posts information about recent earthquakes, so users can see where they happened and can view the seismograms for every notable earthquake.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Visualization (static visualization, animation, simulation)

Time Required: 20 minutes

View Activity

The Seismic Monitor is an interactive display of global seismicity that allows users to monitor earthquakes in near real-time, view records of ground motion, learn about earthquakes, visit seismic stations around the world, and search the web for earthquake or region-related information. The page includes a link to the IRIS Earthquake Browser.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Visualization (static visualization, animation, simulation)

Time Required: 10 minutes

Seismology S-P Earthquake Location

View Activity

The activity adapts the approach that L.W. Braile and S.J. Braile have named the Walk – Run method, in which S wave propagation is simulated by walking, and P wave propagation is simulated by running. The purpose of this activity is to model (1) the different speeds of P and S waves as they travel from the epicenter of an earthquake; and (2) simulated travel times via a technique used by seismologists to locate earthquakes. This technique is called the S and P Wave Travel Time Simulation or "S minus P" Earthquake Location Method.

Instructional Strategies: Modeling

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 150 minutes

Locating an Earthquake With Recent Seismic Data

View Activity

In this activity from the IRIS teaching collection, students use recent, three-component seismic data to locate a global earthquake.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 60 minutes

Tsunami Run-up Prediction for Seaside, Oregon with ArcExplorer GIS

View Activity

In this chapter of the Earth Exploration Toolbook, students practice using scientific tools to identify the potential consequences of a five, fifteen, and twenty-meter sea level rise due to a tsunami run-up on the Oregon coast near the town of Seaside, after which students will plan evacuation routes for two of the town's schools.

Instructional Strategies: Challenge or problem-solving

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 135 minutes

Volcanic hazards

View Activity

The many types of hazards associated with volcanoes are described in this article by Jessica Ball for

Instructional Strategies: Reading

Resource Type: News or popular magazine article

Time Required: 10 minutes

Smithsonian geologist puts Eyjafjallajökull eruption in perspective

View Activity

Smithsonian Geologist Liz Cottrell discusses the impact of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull eruption on air traffic, describes how scientists obtain samples from deep within the Earth and compares it to other volcanoes around the world and throughout history.

Instructional Strategies: Lecture

Resource Type: Interview with an expert

Time Required: 5 minutes

Climate and Civilization - The Maya Example

View Activity

In 1996, the drillship JOIDES Resolution drilled offshore Venezuela in a deep ocean basin called the Cariaco Basin on Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Leg 165. In this activity, developed by Katherine Ellins, Jeri Rodgers, and James Cano, learners use geochemical data from ODP Core 1002D in the Carioca Basin to study its archive of past climate in Mesoamerica, and to test the hypothesis that drought may have contributed to collapse of the Mayan culture of Central America.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 100 minutes

Mongol Empire Rode Wave of Mild Climate, Says Study

View Activity

This article reports on the results of studies of the rings of ancient trees in Mongolia by Lamont researchers. Their findings reveal that the rise of Genghis Khan, who united small bands of Nomadic Mongol horsemen to conquer much of the world within a span of decades 800 years ago, may have been propelled by a temporary run of nice weather.

Instructional Strategies: Reading

Resource Type: Scholarly article

Time Required: 15 minutes


View Activity

Like scientists, students use satellite imagery and visualizations and conduct hands-on experiments to learn about hurricanes in this EarthLabs module. They also explore over 150 years of storm data to find out when and where these storms occur, consider their impact on life and property, and develop a hurricane preparation and safety plan.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry, Modeling

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 750 minutes

Although 750 minutes are required to fully implement all nine lab investigations in the EarthLabs Hurricane module, we have selected only two labs for our unit. They are: Hurricane Anatomy (Lab 2) and Death and Destruction (Lab 9).

  • Hurricane Anatomy (Hurricanes, Lab 2)

Students view and explore a variety of different hurricane visualizations and analyze images, identifying basic hurricanes structure, wind circulation patterns, and precipitation patterns.

Time Required: 60 minutes

  • Death and Destruction (Hurricanes, Lab 9)

Students find images and video that illustrate dangers to property and life posed by hurricanes and look at the common causes of death attributed to hurricanes. Additionally, they explore the hazards of and produced by storm surges, high winds, and inland flooding. Using this information students will prepare a survival plan.

Time Required: 90 minutes

Field Trips

Studies that examine how geologists think and learn about the Earth point to the value of field experiences in helping students develop practices that constitute geologic reasoning. We encourage teachers to take students into the field as much as possible. To this end, we include ideas for virtual and actual field trips. The former recognizes the limitations of the K-12 classroom setting. Field learning provides a chance to encourage the ability to see features that are important to professional practice. Indeed, many geoscientists report that fieldwork was a key factor influencing their choice of geoscience as a career.

Virtual Field Trip

Geohazards - Earthquakes, Landslides, Tsunami

New Zealand sits on the boundary between the moving Pacific and Indo-Australian Plate. This virtual field trip allows students to explore some of New Zealand's geologically active areas in the Marlborough region. Experts take learners to remote locations in order to understand what causes natural disasters such as earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis. They also learn about risk management associated with these types of geohazards.

Scaffolding Notes

Teachers must develop their own individual plan for how they will teach the unit. The learning activities and educational resources in this unit are intended to complement other instructional activities led by the teacher. Many of the selected learning experiences provide links to excellent background preparatory materials, additional hands-on resources, teaching tips, and cross-curricular connections.

Teachers will need to create their own multimedia presentations, deliver lectures and assign ancillary work to their students in order to set the stage for effective use of the learning activities contained herein. Therefore, it is imperative to allocate time to review the activities and background material prior to using the learning experiences in this unit and to probe students for their prior knowledge before starting an activity.

In addition, although some activities may incorporate assessments, teachers may need to create their own assessments to ensure that are appropriate for the students they teach.

Asterisks (*) indicate teacher resource and background information recommendations for activity support.


The American Geosciences Institute (AGI) video, Big Idea 8: Natural Hazards pose risks to humans, from the Earth Science Literacy Principles collection, introduces natural hazards and examines how they impact humans. It provides an introduction containing useful images and video footage of multiple types of natural hazards. The video also stresses the contributions that geoscientists make to the study of the processes responsible for natural hazards, as well as how we can prepare for them and mitigate their effects. Students can keep a running list of the types of natural hazards to be shared as a group post-video, or a set of guiding questions can be provided to students to consider while they view the video and follow with a class discussion. The main link found at Earth Science Literacy Principles allows for download or for YouTube play.

*The earthquake is the first example of a natural hazard addressed in the unit. Most students should have learned the basics of plate tectonics prior to this unit, however, a review may be helpful. Teachers can visit the IRIS Education and Public Outreach portal to read information about earthquakes and seismology before implementing earthquake activities with their students. IRIS has a wealth of excellent information, including Educational Fact Sheets ("One-pagers") downloadable in English and Spanish, animations, short video lectures, and seismic wave visualizations and sonnifications. These resources will help bring the topic to life in the classroom.

The second activity is an exploration of the IRIS Rapid Earthquake Viewer (REV), an online tool that provides students access to authentic seismic data via two main options. The "Earthquake View" provides seismograms of notable earthquakes dating from the present back to 1989. One may select an earthquake from a list or map, or one may go directly to the five most recent earthquakes by using the list on the left. The "Station View" allows one to view the last 24 hours of ground motion from seismograph stations all over the globe, including those in their local area. It is recommended that students and teachers review the REV glossary which includes definitions of essential terms such as distance degrees, geocentric angles, and focus.

Once students have mastered REV, introduce IRIS Seismic Monitor. This is an interactive display of global seismicity that allows users to monitor earthquakes in near real-time, view records of ground motion, and visit seismic stations around the world. Seismic Monitor shows earthquakes as colored circles, with the size of the circle relating to the magnitude of the quake. Click on the world map to open a zoom map for the region selected. From that window, one can click in the center of the representative earthquake circles to get a list of recent earthquakes in that vicinity, or click on observations stations to bring up station information pages. From the activity page there is a link to the IRIS Earthquake Browser, IEB, which allows users to plot earthquakes on a global or regional map that occurred over a given time period, or that are within a selected magnitude range. The data archive of 3.4 million quakes covers a period from 1970 to just minutes ago. Another feature of IEB is that it allows one to rotate quakes in three dimensions.

*It is highly recommended teachers demonstrate the Monitor and IEB tools in the classroom highlighting key features. (A series of seismology fact sheets provides a helpful overview for teachers if needed.) Be sure to emphasize patterns that emerge in the data such as the correspondence between most earthquake locations over time and tectonic plate boundaries. After the class demonstration, encourage students to engage in structured exploration; we suggest developing a set of specific tasks for students to carry out as they explore.

To understand where earthquakes are likely to occur, it is important to know how to locate their epicenter. In Seismology S-P Earthquake Location, students model the transmission of seismic data from a simulated earthquake, and then use the data they generate to locate the epicenter of the simulated earthquake by triangulation. Before implementing the activity, teachers must review with their students the different types of seismic waves and their motion through Earth. An elongated spring may be used to demonstrate seismic waves. Teachers should also review IRIS Educational Fact Sheet No. 6, How are Earthquakes Located?, before the activity. This "Fact Sheet" may be printed and distributed to students to read as an out-of-class assignment.

The Seismology S-P Earthquake Location "Walk – Run" method requires an "open space" of about 30 x 30 meters—a playfield or a gymnasium. Teachers must have students who are P waves (runners) and S waves (walkers) practice beforehand to ensure that they maintain the same pace during the earthquake simulation. Results will be skewed if teachers do not follow the directions when implementing the activity.

After students have modeled earthquake location with the "Walk-Run" approach, they will then use authentic, recent, three-component seismic data to locate a global earthquake in the next activity Locating an Earthquake with Recent Seismic Data. By the end of this activity, students will be able to identify P and S waves on seismograms, determine the distance of an epicenter from a seismic station using travel time curves, locate the epicenter of an earthquake by triangulation, and
 calculate the time of origin of an earthquake based on seismic data. We recommend that teachers download seismograms and maps from the website in advance and assemble these and other required materials in a student packet.

*Large and sometimes devastating earthquakes can occur without warning. IRIS "Teachable Moments" is a collection of PowerPoint presentations covering recent events compiled by seismologists and education experts within hours of a large earthquake. They are available for educators to download to teach about the event.

*Earthquakes that occur offshore can trigger tsunamis. On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 megathrust earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a large tsunami, with wave heights reaching up to 10 meters. These two events caused widespread devastation and destruction in Japan, washing away entire cities as well as damaging the country's nuclear power plants leading to a potential meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. SERC has a large collection of visualizations, news articles, and teaching activities for the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami.

After the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean and 2011 Japan tsunamis, vulnerable coastal countries became concerned about the potential threat of tsunami destruction. In this chapter of the Earth Exploration Toolbook, Tsunami Run-up Prediction for Seaside, Oregon with ArcExplorer GIS, students identify the potential consequences of a five, fifteen, and twenty-meter sea level rise due to a tsunami run-up on the Oregon coast near the town of Seaside. They use Geobrain Online Analysis System (GeOnAS) to access, view, and process digital elevation model (DEM) data. This DEM data is then imported into Arc Explorer Java Edition (AEJEE) in order to visualize the potential sea-level rise that could occur during a tsunami run-up event near Seaside, Oregon. In AEJEE, the DEM contours will be overlaid with additional geographic data, such as roads and schools, allowing students to see the potential impact of a tsunami event on transportation, infrastructure, housing, and natural habitat in this region. Once they have evaluated the region of potential inundation with My World GIS, students plan evacuation routes for two schools in the town of Seaside. We recommend that teachers download the datasets and AEJEE project files ahead of time. After completing this chapter, students are able to use geospatial data to investigate coastal topography, use AEJEE for predicting sea-level rise during a potential tsunami event, and conduct spatial analyses in order to generate an evacuation management plan.

*A good discussion on volcanoes needs good a geology/geography mini-lesson. This way the students can see how plate movements produce volcanoes as well as get a reminder of where on Earth significant volcanic eruptions have occurred and where volcanoes continue to erupt. Once a bit of a review has taken place the students can then explore how representative types of volcanoes and eruptions can be associated with the different types of plate interactions. A good student map can be found at Active Volcanoes, Plate Tectonics, and the "Ring of Fire". A good teacher review for all things volcanic, including plate tectonics, can be found at Volcanic Ash: Volcanism.

Volcanic Hazards is an excellent activity for introducing the specific vocabulary associated with volcanic eruptions. A jigsaw approach or a graphic organizer for vocabulary would be applicable here.

Smithsonian geologist puts Eyjafjallajökull eruption in perspective is a good discussion of the activity of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano. It is important to point out the location of the volcano prior to viewing the video. Ms. Cottrell also discusses the effect past major historic volcanoes have had on humans as well as some volcanoes' current threat to our societies.

Climate and Civilization - The Maya Example requires the 2001 BBC video, Ancient Apocalypse - The Maya Collapse, as the hook. There are more recent accounts, but these newer versions do not work as well with the activity. The above link for the documentary is the YouTube site as the video links found in "General Information for Teachers" are nonfunctional. It is important to set the stage for the activity by showing the first 20 minutes of the video to the class.

After students have watched the video, ask students to comment on the hypothesis that drought may have contributed to the collapse of the Mayan civilization and to suggest other possible causes. Next, have students do the activity. When they have completed it, return to the hypothesis of drought as the cause for Mayan population decline and conduct a class discussion. Some students will accept that the evidence provided by the activity supports the hypothesis; others will cite the need for additional evidence, creating opportunities to discuss different types of proxy climate data. Still others will remain unconvinced.

After the class discussion, watch the last part of the video, from 36 minutes to the end, and be sure to leave extra time for additional discussion about the very real threat of drought in the southwest and western United States. The documentary is key to the success of this activity. If YouTube is unavailable in the classroom, then we recommend buying the video. (The instructions for using Excel are out-of-date.)

The EarthLabs Hurricanes module has 9 lab investigations. We recommend Labs 2 and 9. Lab 2: Hurricane Anatomy provides a number of visuals to enable the student to characterize hurricanes and analyze those characteristics in order to make comparisons. The students will need computers and internet access. Lab 9: Death and Destruction begins with students exploring the results of hurricanes both in terms of causes of human casualties and property losses. A hands-on activity has the students creating a model of storm surge. An inquiry based lab could be done with the students hypothesizing and testing the different variables given in order to create different effects of a storm surge.

*If students are studying hurricanes during hurricane season, they can monitor the position and status of storms in real time. Hurricanes can serve as an exciting entry point into understanding everyday weather, or a culminating topic for an Earth systems or environmental science unit.

Next Generation Science Standards

We anticipate that students should be able to achieve the NGSS Performance Expectation(s) listed after completing the activities in this unit. However, we have not carried out educational research to verify this.

HS-ESS3-1. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards and changes in climate have influenced human activity.

These Performance Expectations integrate the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Cross Cutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices of the NGSS as shown in the unit table NGSS Congruence: Natural Hazards (Acrobat (PDF) 273kB Jan24 16).

Additional Resources

The recommended additional resources may be used to extend or augment the storyline.

[link 'UPSeis an educational site for budding seismologists']contains valuable information. UPSeis (pronounced "up size") teaches about the planet we live on and how it works. It gives instruction in the science of seismology and earthquakes: where they happen, why they happen, and what kinds of problems they cause.

BBC's Natural Disasters website provides animated guides to the world's most devastating phenomena: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. Learners may click through the animations.

National Geographic Natural Disasters provides photos and information on natural disasters including earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, and tsunamis.

The IRIS Education and Public Outreach portal offers links to six seismic resources for different age levels.

The University of Texas at Austin Environmental Science Institute's Hot Science – Cool Talks has archived talks that are highly relevant to this unit. Citizen Science: Man vs. Machine in Providing Rapid Earthquake Information is about the USGS system, called "ShakeMap," which relies on shaking levels recorded at seismic stations to map out the distribution of shaking. This information is points to the areas of most shaking and likely to have experienced damage. These maps provide the basis for emergency response coordination, estimation of damage and losses, and information for the public and the media. Global Death and Construction is about the need to make buildings that resist collapse when they are shaken by earthquakes to reduce the terrible cost to society of lives lost and property and homes destroyed.

SERC has a large collection of visualizations, news articles and teaching activities for the 2011 Japan earthquake and Tsunami.

Fault Lines of America is an ABC News video clip that highlights the location of areas of seismicity in the United States.

Music Theme

Bad Storm Coming by the Downliners Sect

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