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Unit 3 Hazards at Divergent Plate Boundaries

Rachel Teasdale (California State University, Chico)
Laurel Goodell (Princeton University)
Peter Selkin (University of Washington, Tacoma)

These materials have been reviewed for their alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards as detailed below. Visit InTeGrate and the NGSS to learn more.


Students characterize divergent plate boundary volcanism by interpreting patterns in diverse data sets (Google Earth, photos, maps, graphs, videos) from several eruption case studies. Science and Engineering Practices emphasize data interpretation to construct a model. Cross-Cutting Concepts include using patterns to infer cause and effect and recognizing that the stability of these locations is disturbed by both gradual and sudden volcanic events.

Science and Engineering Practices

Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Use graphical displays (e.g., maps, charts, graphs, and/or tables) of large data sets to identify temporal and spatial relationships. MS-P4.2:

Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena. MS-P4.4:

Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Analyze and interpret data to determine similarities and differences in findings. MS-P4.7:

Cross Cutting Concepts

Patterns: Graphs, charts, and images can be used to identify patterns in data. MS-C1.4:

Patterns: Patterns can be used to identify cause and effect relationships. MS-C1.3:

Cause and effect: Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems. MS-C2.2:

Patterns: Empirical evidence is needed to identify patterns. HS-C1.5:

Patterns: Different patterns may be observed at each of the scales at which a system is studied and can provide evidence for causality in explanations of phenomena HS-C1.1:

Disciplinary Core Ideas

The History of Planet Earth: Tectonic processes continually generate new ocean sea floor at ridges and destroy old sea floor at trenches. MS-ESS1.C2:

Natural Hazards: Mapping the history of natural hazards in a region, combined with an understanding of related geologic forces can help forecast the locations and likelihoods of future events. MS-ESS3.B1:

Plate Tectonics and Large-Scale System Interactions: Plate tectonics is the unifying theory that explains the past and current movements of the rocks at Earth’s surface and provides a framework for understanding its geologic history. Plate movements are responsible for most continental and ocean-floor features and for the distribution of most rocks and minerals within Earth’s crust. HS-ESS2.B2:

Performance Expectations

Earth and Human Activity: Analyze and interpret data on natural hazards to forecast future catastrophic events and inform the development of technologies to mitigate their effects. MS-ESS3-2:

  1. This material was developed and reviewed through the InTeGrate curricular materials development process. This rigorous, structured process includes:

    • team-based development to ensure materials are appropriate across multiple educational settings.
    • multiple iterative reviews and feedback cycles through the course of material development with input to the authoring team from both project editors and an external assessment team.
    • real in-class testing of materials in at least 3 institutions with external review of student assessment data.
    • multiple reviews to ensure the materials meet the InTeGrate materials rubric which codifies best practices in curricular development, student assessment and pedagogic techniques.
    • review by external experts for accuracy of the science content.

  2. This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

    Resources in this top level collection a) must have scored Exemplary or Very Good in all five review categories, and must also rate as “Exemplary” in at least three of the five categories. The five categories included in the peer review process are

    • Scientific Accuracy
    • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
    • Pedagogic Effectiveness
    • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
    • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

    For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: Apr 28, 2015


Students work in small groups to examine data and videos of earthquakes, submarine volcanic eruptions, and black smokers at submarine divergent plate boundaries, and then predict similar processes at subaerial divergent plate boundaries. The culminating activity has students use Google Earth to examine data for each plate boundary, connect seismic data with volcanic events to make connections between the style and scale of volcanic eruptions and seismic activity, and the resulting morphology of divergent plate boundaries. Data sets will include Google Earth, Smithsonian GVN, NOAA, USGS, and written accounts.

Learning Goals

This unit addresses several overarching goals of the InTeGrate program including analyzing geoscience-related grand challenges facing society (impact of natural hazards), developing students' ability to address interdisciplinary problems and use authentic geoscience data, and improving students' geoscientific thinking skills (interpretation of multiple data sets).

Unit 3 Learning Objectives (and areas in the unit where objectives are addressed)

  1. Students will interpret data from multiple sources to characterize geologic activity associated with divergent plate boundaries (in prework and formative assessment).
  2. 8.1: Natural hazards result from natural Earth processes.
  3. Students will compare and contrast divergent plate boundaries on land and on the ocean floor (during class group work, following instructor discussion).
  4. 4.5: Many active geologic processes occur at plate boundaries.
  5. Students will be able to explain how geologists use multiple types of data to characterize geologic activity associated with volcanic eruptions (group activity).
  6. 8.6: Earth scientists are continually improving estimates of when and where natural hazards occur.

Context for Use

Unit 3 is designed for introductory level geology courses, including courses in physical geology and geologic hazards, but is also appropriate for any course studying plate tectonics. Unit 3 introduces students to physical characteristics of divergent plate boundaries and hazards associated with submarine and subaerial processes at several locations. This unit is best used following Units 1-2 and prior to Units 4-6, but can be used in a different order or even on its own. Students are expected to come to the activity with the following background:

  • Familiarity with the basic tenets of plate tectonics and the general characteristics of plate boundaries. One suggested activity is Using Google Earth to Explore Plate Tectonics, by Laurel Goodell.
  • Completion of the prework assignment (which could be incorporated into class time if a longer time is available).

Unit 3 is designed for a 50-minute class period with an hour-long prework assignment that uses several websites to introduce students to a particular active divergent plate boundary (the Juan de Fuca Ridge). In class, students will work in small groups and use data sheets as handouts (provided) or computers to access data sheets. This unit is suitable for most class sizes if enough data sets are distributed (e.g. one set to each small group). If used for a longer class or lab period, the prework and in-class work can all be completed in one session (internet access required for prework). Please see the "Instructor Stories" pages to learn more about how Unit 3 has been used in different types of classes.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students begin Unit 3 with the prework, which has students use websites to learn about an active divergent plate boundary (Juan de Fuca Ridge) and answer questions about the plate boundary. The class period is designed to be used with the instructor's guide (see below) and an instructor's PowerPoint file (see below), as follows:

Prework introduces students to the divergent plate boundary unit by exploring the Juan de Fuca Ridge submarine divergent plate boundary (prework for students is below).

Outline of the class period (including slide numbers from instructor's PowerPoint, student handouts and estimated time):

  1. Class introduction and prework debrief (slides 1-4 ); 10 min
  2. Introduction to divergent plate boundaries on land (slides 5-6); 10 min
  3. Group activity to examine divergent plate boundary activity on land (Student Data Tables and Student Data Handout); 15 min
  4. Student report/debrief (slides 7-8); 5 min
  5. Summative discussion (slides 9-11); 5 min

Materials Provided:

  • Prework for students to complete: Unit 3 Prework (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 25kB Apr1 15) (and as PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 64kB Apr1 15)). This assignment should take approximately 20 minutes.
  • Instructor's PowerPoint slideshow for the class period is here: Unit 3 Class Guide ppt (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 4.2MB Apr20 15) and as a PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 688kB Apr20 15)
  • Student Handouts for group activities (#1 and 3 above):

Student Worksheet (note most students will bring these in their prework): Unit 3 Student Worksheet In class (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 23kB Apr1 15) (or as PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 56kB Apr1 15)) and

Student Geologic Data Sets: Unit 3 Student Data in class (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 7.7MB Apr8 15) (or as PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 2.6MB Mar15 15))

Teaching Notes and Tips

Handouts, instructor notes, class PowerPoint files, and keys are suitable for a 50- or 75-minute class.

The information and discussion for Activities 1, 4, and 5 should be guided with instructor prompts for students to respond, which can be done in class with structured shout-outs, clickers (if appropriately worded), or other forms of organized discussion. Alternatively these items can be done online with a class discussion forum (e.g. in Blackboard).

Students can leave class with Tables 1 and 2 filled in, or those tables can be turned in for grading (Summative Assessment).

To modify this unit in combination with Unit 4 (Risk at Divergent Plate Boundaries) for use in a single two- or three-hour lab period, we recommend assigning the Unit 3 prework as a pre-lab assignment, and then in the lab session doing the Unit 3 classroom activity, followed by the Unit 4 prework as an in-class activity, followed by the Unit 4 classroom activity.


Formative assessment can be completed during group activities (Part 1 and 3) as the instructor circulates through the room, listening to (and prodding) student conversations.

Summative assessment can be completed formally by collecting Tables 1 and 2 (keys to Tables 1 and 2 are in instructor's PowerPoint) or by asking students to write responses to discussion items in Part 5, and can be graded using this


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(also available as a

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, or according to instructor's preference.

References and Resources

Resources for submarine divergent plate boundaries:

Resources for the Afar Rift Region:

Eruption of Nyiragongo:

  • Photovolcanica: Nyiragongo
  • Gas emissions from Lake Nyos and lake turnover
  • D. Tedesco, O. Vaselli, P. Papale, S.A. Carn, M. Voltaggio, G.M. Sawyer, J. Durieux, M. Kasereka, and F. Tassi, "January 2002 volcano-tectonic eruption of Nyiragongo volcano, Democratic Republic of Congo, "Journal of Geophysical Research 112 (2007), doi:10.1029/2006JB004762.
  • Vaselli et al. 2003. Acta Vulcanol. 14/15: 123-128.
  • Details on region near Lake Kivu to the SW of Nyiragongo; dry gas vents known locally as Mazukus ("evil winds") pose a threat to humans and livestock; Plume from the lava lake was estimated to include 60000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide per day in May 2002, with significant amounts of HF, HCl and carbon dioxide. Vaselli et al. 2006. Chinese J. Geochem. 25 (Suppl.): 71-72.
  • Nyiragongo was difficult for volcanologists to reach because of bureaucratic reasons, and political situations (Tazieff, 1994).
  • Flows entered Lake Kivu and posed a threat of releasing the CO2 and CH4 stored within the lake (IRIS, 2002; Reed, 2002).
  • Santo et al. 2003. Acta Vulcanol. 14/15: 63-66.
  • Demant et al. 1994. Bull Volcanol. 56: 47-61.
  • Platz et al. 2004. J. Volc. Geotherm. Res. 136: 269-295.
  • Historical descriptions of pre-2002 activity have been assembled by Durieux. Acta Vulcanol. 14(1-2), 2003: 137-144.
  • Detailed chronology and analysis of 2002 eruption is found in Komorowski et al. 2003. Acta Vulcanol. 14/15: 27-62.

Eruption of Grimsvotn

  • K.S. Vogfjörd, S.S. Jakobsdóttir, G.B. Gudmundsson, M.J. Roberts, K. Ágústsson, T. Arason, H. Geirsson, S. Karlsdóttir, S. Hjaltadóttir, U. Ólafsdóttir, B. Thorbjarnardóttir, T. Skaftadóttir, E. Sturkell, E. B. Jónasdóttir, G. Hafsteinsson, H. Sveinbjörnsson, R. Stefánsson and T. V. Jónsson T. 2007," Forecasting and Monitoring a Subglacial Eruption in Iceland," EOS Transactions 86 (2007): 245 and 248.

Resources for making maps of earthquake epicenters

This site offers several options for investigating earthquakes with which you can generate a list of recent earthquakes, or see them on a map.

  1. Select the Custom Search option on the menu on the right side of the page and provide the location and earthquake information below (1-3) to create an earthquake map. Note: a warning window may pop up indicating there are too many results; select Cancel, and enter the following information:
    1. Give the search a name (e.g. Juan de Fuca -30 days ago or -6 months ago)
    2. Select the Custom Region and enter:
      • North = 48 West = -131 East = 126 South = 44
      • Dates: Start date: enter the date of 30 days ago (in format yyyy-mm-dd); End date: enter today's date
      • Magnitude: Minimum: 0.0; Maximum: 10.0
      • Enter "Search"
    3. A map will open showing the earthquakes in this location (you can zoom in/out of the map or Zoom to see the earthquakes on the list, using the drop-down box on the top right of the map).

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »