Natural Hazards: Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth

Initial Publication Date: July 14, 2015

Time required to complete this unit:

This page is under development and may be edited at any time. Some resources have not been cataloged, pending project approval.
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


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

Quick Links

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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.

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

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

Mongol Empire Rode Wave of Mild Climate, Says Study

View Activity,gave%20the%20Mongols%20their%20power.

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.


Oftentimes it is difficult to learn how to get into a geoscience career. Below we have curated resources and stories from several paleontologists to give students an idea about how one can become a paleontologist. We want to emphasize that being a geoscientist, including a paleontologist, is typically not about being the best in one's class or having a science-specific skillset--successful geoscientists usually are interdisciplinary, creative, and have perseverance even when things do not go according to plan.

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.


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.

Additional Resources

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

UPSeis an educational site for budding seismologistscontains 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.

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