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Unit 6 Hazards and Risk at Convergent Plate Boundaries (Day 2 of activity)

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


In this two-day activity, students monitor a simulated evolving volcanic crisis at a convergent plate boundary (Cascadia). Using monitoring data and geologic hazard maps, students make a series of forecasts for the impending eruption and associated risks. By the end of the activity, students will have learned the outcome of the eruption and assess the impacts of the eruption of Mount Rainier on specific locations around the volcano.

This unit is a continuation of Unit 5, in which students analyzed simulated pre-eruption seismic, tilt, and gas emission data. In this, the second day of the simulation, students update their eruption forecasts based on new data (in the prework) and then (in groups in class) by combining information from multiple data sets. In class, each group assesses the vulnerability of one or more assigned locations near Mount Rainier. The exercise culminates with students assessing the impacts of the simulated eruption at their assigned locations.

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Learning Goals

Unit 6 supports the following overarching module goals:

  1. Use qualitative and quantitative information to assess risk due to geological hazards associated with plate boundaries.
  2. Develop strategies to mitigate risk due to geological hazards.

Unit 6 addresses several overarching goals of the InTeGrate program including analyzing a geoscience-related grand challenge facing society (impact of natural hazards), developing students' ability to address interdisciplinary problems and use authentic geoscience data (use of real data sets from the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption), and improving students' geoscientific thinking skills (interpretation of multiple data sets and developing multiple working hypotheses).

Unit 6 Learning Objectives (including areas in the unit where objectives are addressed))

  1. Students will work in groups to interpret authentic eruption precursor data from multiple sources to develop hypotheses and forecast the potential impacts of increasingly frequent geologic activity prior to an eruption (classwork during Unit 5 and Unit 6).
  2. Students will evaluate the vulnerability of geographic locations to volcanic hazards based on topography, proximity to volcano, and other geological and geographic factors. (classwork and Unit 6 assessment).
  3. Students will inform non-scientists of the impacts of potential volcanic hazards and make recommendations for future mitigation (classwork and Unit 6 assessment).

Context for Use

Unit 6 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 6 is a continuation of Unit 5 and is intended to be used in a two-class sequence with Unit 5. The unit is designed to be used in a 50-minute class, but can be modified for use in a single longer class (see examples in Teaching Notes, below). Together the two units introduce students to the use of multiple data sets that evolve through time to forecast hazards associated with the eruption of a major volcano at a convergent plate boundary. As such, the two units are best used following Units 1-4, but can be used in a different order or even on their own if students are familiar with general information about plate boundaries and seismic and volcanic data sets. One suggested activity is Using Google Earth to Explore Plate Tectonics, by Laurel Goodell

Unit 6 has a pre-class assignment. Students can turn in assigned pre-class work electronically, or can print worksheets to submit their results in class. If used for a class or lab period longer than 50 minutes, activities for Unit 5 and Unit 6 (and the pre-class assignments) can all be completed in one session (internet access required for pre-class work) or discussion of individual data sets or sites can be extended.

This unit can be adapted for most class sizes. Smaller classes may require student groups to carry out a vulnerability analysis for more than one geographic location.

Description and Teaching Materials


(approximately 30 min)

Students receive updated monitoring data for Mount Rainier (e.g. on Blackboard), of the same type that they examined in Unit 5. Updated data correspond to June 8-12, a period of increasing seismicity, gas and ash emissions, and tilt associated with rising magma. In this prework assignment, students answer questions about the data and update their forecast and USGS Volcano Alert Level (or choose to keep it the same), with justification. Students are instructed to complete and bring the student worksheet with them to class for use in activities on Day 2. The worksheet can be collected and graded for class credit.

As part of pre-class work, students are assigned a geographic location for the risk analysis and conclusion of Unit 6. Locations can be assigned according to the instructor's preferences, but should be evenly distributed so that at least one student from each data type specialty group is included in each geographic location group (this is a Jigsaw activity, click on Jigsaw for more information on how they work). In a small class, there may be too few students to carry out the risk analysis on all of the geographic locations listed below. We suggest assigning multiple locations to each group of students, such that each group examines locations with contrasting outcomes during the eruption scenario (see below).

Prework files:

For instructors only:

  • ( )

In Class

Students reconvene in their assigned Locations for Risk Analysis groups. Each group should include at least one student from each geological data specialty (from Unit 5).

  1. (10 min) In their groups, students share geologic data from Unit 5 and prework from Unit 6. In addition, students get a new set of data (data set 3) and include this latest data in their interpretations for geologic activity and the Alert Level designation. We suggest distributing printed versions of the student data so that students are not tempted to confuse this fictional eruption with the real eruption on which it is based (Pinatubo, 1991; referenced in notes on the student data PowerPoint). Complete attribution information is in the Instructor's Version.
  2. (5-10 min) Students familiarize themselves with the locations that they have been assigned for risk analysis. Location information is compiled in the following files:
    • Maps for risk analysis (Acrobat (PDF) 18.9MB Nov7 14): Each student group should get (on paper or electronically) a copy of the map set corresponding to the geographic location they have been assigned. Map sets are also available as individual files (see below). Each page consists of the following maps:
      • Left panel: A map illustrating topographic features (for most locations, the features are shown in high resolution shaded relief, using LIDAR data from Puget Sound LIDAR Consortium; for Yakima and Centralia, data are from the USGS National Elevation Dataset).
      • Middle panel: A map illustrating human features, including population (as dot density), hospitals, fire stations, and emergency response facilities (Data from Washington State Department of Natural Resources and US Census Bureau).
      • Right top panel: A local overview illustrating both topographic patterns (again, usually shaded relief from LIDAR) and population patterns (dot density).
      • Right bottom panel: A regional overview, indicating locations of nearby risk analysis sites.
    • On the left and middle panels, the area that each group will use for risk analysis is outlined in red. Maps also include captions describing key aspects of their site that should be considered in their vulnerability and risk analyses.
    • Students use the Geologic Hazards Map (contained in all Student Geologic Data Sets) to identify the most likely hazard associated with their site (Pyroclastic Flows, Lahars, Ash Fall, Flooding, and Gas Emissions).
  3. (10 min) Students use the Vulnerability Assessment Table (in the Student Worksheets for this unit) to describe the geological and geographic characteristics of the geographic location that they have been assigned for risk analysis. Students should consider characteristics that make their assigned location particularly vulnerable to some or all of the hazards determined in step 2 above. Students should begin by considering information about their location specifically, but should generalize using information learned in all previous parts of this module. Once they have identified the geological, geographic, and topographic characteristics that make sites (in general) vulnerable to a particular hazard, we suggest collecting the information in a digital file or on a large-format page at the front of the classroom using this large format table (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 24kB Sep23 14) or projecting the same table in the Instructor's PowerPoint file used for this class period. This document could also be filled in as a Google Doc if classroom logistics allow. A sample set of characteristics (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 22kB Sep23 14) is provided. The instructor may then lead a class discussion to summarize the characteristics of locations that make them vulnerable to the volcanic hazards listed in the table.
    • ( )
    • ( )
  4. (10 min) An announcement is made that a major eruption has occurred at Mount Rainier (the morning of June 15 of the data). An Eruption Presentation (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 10.4MB Apr8 15) by the instructor and the associated Google Earth data (KMZ File 243kB Sep23 14) (optional) outlines damage to the locations used for risk analysis in the previous task. A summary of the eruption scenario (Acrobat (PDF) 102kB Sep23 14) is available for the instructor to use to learn more about the eruption.
  5. (10 min) The end of the Eruption Presentation (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 10.4MB Apr8 15) includes discussion prompts the instructor can use to wrap up the activity. Suggested prompts include:
    • During the eruption cycle, you had to issue alerts based on incomplete information: you did not yet know the full scale of the eruption, or what its damage would be. In fact, a common part of the scientific process involves drawing conclusions from the information you have, and then revising those conclusions when presented with new information. This process of revising conclusions (or, in this case, alert levels) may lead some people to feel that scientists are not trustworthy, or that the conclusion (alert level) is based on opinion. How might you communicate your alerts to the public in a way that takes both the uncertainty and the seriousness of your alert into account?
    • Consider the vulnerability score of a town versus. the overall risk (which includes economic impacts, population, etc.). How can disaster managers use vulnerability and risk to prioritize recovery efforts of this disaster and mitigation efforts in future? Should both vulnerability and risk be considered?
    • Where should disaster management personnel start their work associated with this disaster? Compare the immediate need for human assistance (food, water, housing) with economic reconstruction (roads, bridges, portsâ€" restarting the economy).
    • What is the role of volcanologists in supporting state agencies in their need to manage the recovery of this major eruption within the constraints of probably ongoing activity like lahar flows, secondary smaller eruptions? Given that most of your instruments were destroyed in the eruption, prioritize the specific data would you want to have (and which instruments you will need to re-install on the volcano) so that you can provide monitoring analyses to disaster experts.
  6. Classes with remaining time can have students in groups brainstorm their ideas for final assessment (see below, the final version of which can be completed outside of class).

Teaching Notes and Tips

Handouts, instructor notes, class PowerPoint files, and keys are suitable for a 50-minute class, or can be modified for use in a longer class.

Because students need to know their geographic location assignment to complete the prework for Unit 6, we strongly recommend that instructors organize the jigsaw activity that will be completed in Unit 6 before starting Unit 5. Each coauthor of this module organized the jigsaw slightly differently, depending on our class size and resources, and has described those techniques in our Instructor Stories:

  • Rachel Teasdale describes her jigsaw organization for a class of 50+ students.
  • Peter Selkin describes his jigsaw organization for a class of 12 students.
  • Laurel Goodell describes her jigsaw organization for multiple lab sections of 12-17 students.

To combine this unit and Unit 5 into a 100-minute (or longer) period, we recommend using the prework for Unit 6 as an in-class exercise, and omitting the whole-class discussion and vulnerability scoring in task 3. The questions used for discussion (task 5) need to be chosen carefully. The first discussion question addresses the process of science (dealing with incomplete or changing data), and so is important given the objectives of this unit. The second and fourth questions are related to the importance of geoscientific information in promoting resilience in the face of disaster, also a key objective of this unit. We therefore recommend discussing the first question and either the second or fourth question in class.

Note that data used are from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, but this is not explicitly stated in Unit 6 activities, in an attempt to make the activity as realistic as possible for students—and so that students do not access details regarding the final outcome of the eruption in advance of completing the activity. Some instructors may decide to refer to this as a simulation, but we prefer to completely immerse students in the activity and not reveal the final eruption until called for during the activity.

Students may wonder why tilt rather than GPS data are used in this activity. This provides a good opportunity to discuss the reality of incomplete and sometimes inadequate data.

Also note that the first bulleted question in task 5 is designed to get students to think about the nature of science. It is adapted from questions in an activity by Elizabeth Nagy-Shadman and Mike Rivas (CSU Northridge). Because the question involves reflection, it may be better as a minute paper than as a discussion prompt. This first bulleted question leads into the assessment questions (below). There is no single correct answer to this question, but some useful insights are collected in the references section (below).


Formative Assessment

A good opportunity for formative assessment and feedback is the class compilation of the vulnerability assessment table in task 3. The instructor will be able to tell whether students have correctly identified locations at high risk of lahar damage (Alder Dam, Ashford, Orting, and Tacoma), pyroclastic flows (Ashford), and ashfall (most locations, but mainly Yakima), and the properties of those sites that leave them most exposed to these volcanic hazards.

Summative Assessment

As a summative assessment for this activity, students write a bulleted report to the State of Washington's Emergency Management Division. The report advises the officials of the outcomes of the eruption, what areas should be prioritized for disaster relief assistance, and how a similar disaster in the future can be mitigated through strategic planning. See Units 5/6 Assessment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 28kB Apr6 15) (pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 65kB Apr6 15)). An

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References and Resources

  • USGS Fact Sheet 2008-3062: Hazard map for Rainier and more information on the hazards of an eruption of Mount Rainier.
  • PHI-VOLCS (Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology) and USGS monitored the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo as the volcano became increasingly active, erupted, and remained active. Reports are compiled in Fire and Mud: Eruptions and Lahars of Mount Pinatubo Philippines, edited by CG Newhall and RS Punongbayan. The entire volume is available online and is the source of data used to represent precursor and eruptive activity at Mount Rainier.
  • Lahar hazards at Mount Rainier from Vic Camp, San Diego State University (bottom of page)
  • MSH eruption info (including Native Americans)
  • A quick, entertaining source of background information is the NOVA video, "In the Path of a Killer Volcano," widely available commercially. We recommend that the instructor views the video prior to Unit 5 and then shows it to students the day after Unit 6. In the video, students can see how USGS and PhiVolcs scientists responded to precursor eruption data as they received it in real time, similar to the Unit 5/6 simulation.
  • The "Cascadia Region Earthquake Workgroup" compiled a report in 2013 describing a major earthquake and how it would impact the Pacific Northwest.
  • This activity is inspired by a similar volcano simulation activity by Karen Harpp (Colgate University), described in Harpp and Sweeney, 2002, Simulating a Volcanic Crisis in the Classroom, Journal of Geoscience Education, vol 50, pg 410-418.
  • A 1980 publication from USGS on the economic impacts of the eruption of Mount St. Helens is: Mason, K. R., Grant, L. & Furlow, E. (1980). The Economic Effects of the Eruptions of Mount St. Helens., USITC Publication 1096, 83 pp.
  • First-person accounts and legends of geologic activity associated with convergent plate boundaries are cited below, organized by type of geologic activity. Students may find these accounts an interesting way of personalizing the geologic activity and the impact of that activity.
    • Earthquakes
  1. New Zealand modern accounts with USGS context: Quake Stories: Accounts of the Canterbury (Christchurch) 2010-11 Earthquakes.
  2. Earthquakes and tsunami stories from Japan:
    • Ludwin, R.S., Smits, G.J., Carver, D., James, K., Jonientz-Trisler, C., McMillan, A.D., Losey, R., Dennis, R., Rasmussen, J., De Los Angeles, A., Buerge, D., Thrush, C.P., Clague, J., Bowechop, J., et al., 2007, Folklore and earthquakes: Native American oral traditions from Cascadia compared with written traditions from Japan: Geological Society, London, Special Publications, v. 273, no. 1, p. 67–94, doi: 10.1144/GSL.SP.2007.273.01.07.
    • USGS Orphan Tsunami document with links to Japanese stories
  3. Pacific Northwest Native American accounts:
    • Ludwin, R.S., Smits, G.J., Carver, D., James, K., Jonientz-Trisler, C., McMillan, A.D., Losey, R., Dennis, R., Rasmussen, J., De Los Angeles, A., Buerge, D., Thrush, C.P., Clague, J., Bowechop, J., et al., 2007, Folklore and earthquakes: Native American oral traditions from Cascadia compared with written traditions from Japan: Geological Society, London, Special Publications, v. 273, no. 1, p. 67–94, doi: 10.1144/GSL.SP.2007.273.01.07.
    • Clark, E.E., 2003, Indian legends of the Pacific Northwest: University of California Press, Berkeley; London. (Pages 7-8 and 12-15 are particularly relevant.)
  • Lahars and Volcanic Eruptions
  1. Armero:
    • Summary of Armero Lahar from Vic Camp, SDSU
    • USGS description from Pierson et al., 1990
    • Thompson, D., 2000, Volcano cowboys: the rocky evolution of a dangerous science: St. Martin's Press, New York.
  2. Mount Saint Helens:
  3. Santiaguito, Guatemala (1989) by USGS Geologist Jeff Marson
  4. Lake Taupo in New Zealand
  5. Masse, W.B., and Masse, M.J., 2007, Myth and catastrophic reality: using myth to identify cosmic impacts and massive Plinian eruptions in Holocene South America: Geological Society, London, Special Publications, v. 273, no. 1, p. 177–202, doi: 10.1144/GSL.SP.2007.273.01.15. (Pages 177-179 and 187-192 are particularly relevant.)
  6. Legend of Atlantis and eruption of Santorini from Vic Camp, SDSU

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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 »