Using "Dante's Peak" to Discuss Response to Risk

This page authored by Mike Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College the activity utilizes the movie "Dante's Peak" a Roger Donaldson film.
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In this classroom activity, students watch the movie "Dante's Peak" up to the point where Harry Dalton's supervisor arrives and talks to the town council. Students (in small groups) then compare and contrast Harry's assessment and advice to that of his supervisor, they discuss the reaction of the town council members, and they develop their own recommendations for how the scientists and town should proceed. The groups then report out to the class and explain their reasoning.

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Learning Goals

During this activity, students should:
  • Evaluate the type and quality of data used to evaluate a natural hazard
  • Consider the impact of the language used by scientists to communicate risk to the general public and decision-makers
  • Identify and evaluate the positions of a wide range of stakeholders as they respond to a potentially dangerous, but unknown risk posed by a natural hazard
  • Develop a plan for risk communication and future action based on the type and quality of evidence available.

Context for Use

This exercise was developed for a freshman-sophomore level, general education course in environmental geology (it could also be used in a natural disasters course). The activity takes a whole class period, the movie portion takes appx. 20 minutes, the small group discussion (10-15 min.) and the report-out (10-15 min.). The exercise is used after a discussion of the scientific approach to the study of hazards, but prior to any discussion of specific natural hazards (although it could be used as a capstone).

Description and Teaching Materials

Because every hazard has its own characteristics, it is useful to introduce students to risk communication and response. An important thread when exploring natural hazards is the variety of responses people have to the risks posed by nearby hazards as well as the data necessary to support a risk assessment that will be communicated to the public. The movie "Dante's Peak" begins with an engaging narrative that includes risk assessment, communication, and response.

Introduce the movie by directing students to pay attention to the actions of the characters and to consider why they are acting the way they are. Students may wish to take a few notes on their observations. During the opening credits, the movie shows Harry Dalton and his fiancé (both volcanologists) monitoring an eruption in a foreign country, they evacuate, but Harry's fiancé is killed by a falling volcanic bomb. The scene switches to four years later and Harry is called into the Cascades Volcano Observatory and sent out to check the activity of Dante's Peak, a Cascade Range volcano. Harry meets the mayor, travels around the mountain making observations (including water, vegetation, and rocks), and ultimately finds a couple that were killed by a hot spring. Harry directs the mayor to call a meeting of the town council, and he advises the council to review their emergency plans and to put the town on alert. As Harry is making his recommendation, his supervisor arrives, asks Harry to stand down, and advises against putting the town on alert. At this point, you should stop the movie.

Have the students work in groups to analyze the situation and determine what they would recommend to the council. Choices include do nothing, review the emergency plans, put the town on alert, and evacuate. Students need to consider the type and quality of the information Harry has collected, what is and is not known about the hazard, and how people in the community are likely to respond. After 10-15 minutes, the groups report out to the class with their recommendation and justification. If time permits, the entire class can discuss the limitations of the available data and the variety of reactions likely from the community as well as the need to plan for the risks. Deeper discussion can explore why Harry is willing to move forward with less data than his supervisor and how the presentation of the hazard in the context of the movie enhances the perception of risk.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The opening credits of the movie provide some background on the mindset of the protagonist, Harry Dalton. In the interest of time, you may begin the movie when Harry is doing push-ups in his apartment and gets the call to come in to work.

It is very important that students see what Harry does to investigate the volcano and experiences in and around the volcano before he asks the mayor to call a town council meeting. They need to think about the quality and quantity of data Harry has when he makes his recommendation and SET ASIDE what they know is going to happen.

A key discussion point is the difference between emotionally-based responses and those based on data. This is a very common issue in communication of risk.


Formative assessment should be made by the instructor circulating around the room during the group work to ensure the groups are on task and to ask probing questions to help the groups move forward.

Final assessment can be made when the groups present their summaries to the class.

A summative assessment can be made by having students write a one page paper on their personal recommendation and justification.

References and Resources

The movie "Dante's Peak."

If student's wish to watch the whole movie, the Cascade Volcano Observatory has a "Dante's Peak" FAQ page: