Geologic Catastrophes

Carla Whittington,
Highline Community College


This is an introductory-level lecture and activity based course focused on geologic hazards in the Pacific Northwest: earthquakes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions, and landslides. Students are required to access the regional hazards and the personal risks to their homes and their communities from all four hazards. Student work is accessed in a capstone paper/project where they describe the regional/local hazards and evaluate their personal and community risk.

Course URL: restricted access
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
Two Year College

Course Context:

This is a general education course with no prerequisites. It is predominately attended by non-science majors fulfilling a science distribution credit, but sometimes nets the department a few geology majors. Our students live in the local area (South King County between Seattle and Tacoma) and the hazards we cover impact their communities directly. Some live in lahar inundation zones of Mt. Rainier, others live on steep bluffs prone to landslides, and all have earthquake hazards associated with both the Cascadia Subduction Zone and shallow crustal faults like the Tacoma or Seattle faults. It is a very demanding class with significant writing requirements.

Course Content:

Students learn the geologic context for hazards that impact this region, their local communities and homes. They learn how to locate and access scientific information on the web including the most recent geologic and hazard maps to determine the types of hazard (tsunami, liquefaction, landslides, volcanic) that apply to their communities. They also access scenario documents and potential ground acceleration data from cutting edge earthquake research to determine which of the three sources of earthquakes (subduction zone interface, shallow crustal or deep) may have the greatest impact not their individual communities or homes. They learn how to identify potential areas of risk within their homes (natural gas piping, water heaters, unsecured heavy furniture, masonry chimneys) and strategies to reduce risk. In general they learn what to do in the event of occurrence of a hazardous event.

Course Goals:

Students will be able to demonstrate a knowledge of the geologic setting of the Pacific Northwest and its relationship to major geologic hazards. Students will be able to conduct independent (but guided) research by accessing information/data provided from science organizations like the USGS, the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, NOAA, (and others) and use the information to evaluate personal and community risks from geologic events. Students will have the ability to articulate what risk is, what factors influence risk, and how to reduce risk. Students are also expected to synthesize this information into a research paper that properly credits all sources.

Course Features:

This course is divided into four major sections: 1) an introduction to hazard and risk, 2) earthquakes and tsunami, 3) volcanic hazards, and 4) landslide hazards. For each section, students complete a series of assignments that guide them in gathering the data they need to evaluate the hazards and risks for their communities and homes. Some assignments are completed in class with geologic maps, hazard maps, topographic maps, and use of online GIS systems. Others are done as homework using the internet to access government databases and websites. After collecting the relevant data, students are asked to write synthesize paragraphs that summarize what specifically the hazard is and how it applies to their home and community.

As students complete these assignments, they are gathering all the information they need to write the capstone paper.

Course Philosophy:

We want students to understand that they live in a hazardous area and that they need to take steps to protect themselves and their families. Our students come from the surrounding community. Many are place-bound. They have grown up in this area or immigrated here with families. By teaching students about hazards, risk, and risk minimization strategies, we'd like to think we influence (reduce) community risk, as we know that our students discuss what they learn with family members.

We also want students to be familiar with the wealth of local geologic information available to them and where/how to find it when they need it. As future potential property owners and residents of western Washington, they will know how to analyze where they want to build, buy or rent homes in relation to area hazards.


Assessment takes many forms. Students have weekly online quizzes covering the reading material. Students have almost daily small to large homework assignments that are turned in, graded and returned. After each major hazard topic, student understanding is tested by exam.

In addition, students submit drafts of each section of the capstone paper. Sometimes the drafts are graded by the instructor. Alternatively peer reviews of the drafts can be conducted.


Course Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 134kB Apr11 14)

Capstone Assignment (Acrobat (PDF) 192kB Apr11 14)

References and Notes:

Textbook: Natural Hazards and Disasters, Donald and David Hyndman