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Atmosphere, Climate, Geosphere



In early 1991, no one would have predicted that Mt. Pinatubo - a volcano that had been dormant for over 500 years - would explode in an eruption of historic proportions. The size and impact of the June 12-15 event was one for the record books, responsible for the deaths of 800 people and producing approximately 10 cubic kilometers of rock and ash - enough to bury the District of Columbia to a depth of about 39 meters (128 feet).

The event had obvious, immediate impact on tens of thousands of people. However, the worst impacts lasted for several years.

Huge amounts of volcanic gases -- mostly sulfur dioxide -- were ejected into the atmosphere during Pinatubo's eruption. The aerosols were distributed globally, producing phenomena ranging from spectacular sunsets to global cooling.

The view from space has allowed scientists to take measurements of the plumes of sulfur dioxide emitted by major volcanic eruptions--measurements impossible to obtain from the ground or even from aircrafts, which fly too low to capture the "big picture."

Satellite observations of the effects of Mt. Pinatubo aerosols on global climate have been used to support scientists' thinking about climate change and their ability to predict climate variability. For example, researchers at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City have applied their general circulation model of Earth's climate to the aerosol problem. They have reported success in correctly predicting that sulfate aerosols from Mt. Pinatubo's eruption would lower global temperatures.



The 1816 Tambora eruption and then the 1883 Krakatau eruption, both in Indonesia apparently contributed to significant changes to the planet's climate. Your team of Earth Scientists has been asked to study the climatic changes brought about by volcanoes. Do volcanoes alter the Earth's climate? If so, for how long and exactly what is causing these changes? Is there some lesson here that can suggest a geo-engineering solution as a fix for global climate warming?


Date: 7/29/2007

Scenario Images:

Mt Pinatubo Animation
Mt. Pinatubo Animation- Sulfur Dioxide
Click here to view movie

This animation shows sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere during the Mt. Pinatubo Eruption and for a few weeks after the eruption (June 16-30, 1991). Stratospheric sulfur dioxide (SO2) dissipates rather quickly compared to volcanic ash and stratospheric sulfuric acid (H2SO4). Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, Scientific Visualization Studio

May take several minutes to load on slower connections. Tip for using in the classroom: download the animation to your computer.

Mt. Pinatubo
Mt. Pinatubo, Image Courtesy of NOAA



How Volcanoes Work (Cycle A)
This website is an educational resource that describes the science behind volcanoes and volcanic processes. It is intended for university students of geology and volcanology and teachers of Earth science. Each section in the menu builds upon previous sections. Users who lack fundamental knowledge of volcanological principles and terms, can proceed through the website in a progressive manner. More advanced users will find each section self-contained and can navigate through the website as their interest dictates.


USGS on Mt. Pinatubo Eruption (Cycle A)
Details the eruption and impact on spheres.


Volcano World (Cycle A)
Visit Volcano World - a leading source of volcano information. This site is a collaborative Higher Education, K-12, and Public Outreach project of the North Dakota and Oregon Space Grant Consortia. Includes a wealth of information on volcanoes.


Volcanoes (USGS) (Cycle A)
This is the online edition of a booklet "Volcanoes," by Robert Tilling, US Geological Survey. It presents a general summary of the nature, workings, products, and hazards of the common types of volcanoes around the world, along with a brief introduction to the techniques of volcano monitoring and research.


1991 MT. Pinatubo (Cycle B)
A 2003 press release about a NASA-funded study that linked the 1991 eruption of the Mount Pinatubo to a strengthening of a climate pattern called the Arctic Oscillation.


Cascades Volcano Observatory (Cycle B)
Website of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO), which includes Cascade Range Volcanoes - from Meager Mountain in British Columbia to Lassen Peak in California. Includes news and current status of Cascade Range volcanoes, background information, historical information (e.g., Volcanoes of Lewis and Clark), and more.


Michigan Technological University Volcanoes Page (Cycle B)
This website focuses on volcanic hazard mitigation.


Volcano Hell (Cycle C)
Online version of a video was first shown on BBC Two, Thursday 17 January 2002. Includes links to additional volcano resources.


Sample Investigations:


Exploring the Environment: Volcanoes (Cycle A)
This PBL module tasks students to research and decide the following: 1) whether to build a new high school in the shadow of Mt. Rainier; 2) what the prospects are for the population near Kilauea, 3) what should be done in the Portland area when Mt. Hood starts acting like Mt. St. Helens, and 4) if we are facing an eruption in Yellowstone as devastating as a nuclear attack.
Difficulty: intermediate


Types of Volcanic Eruptions (Cycle A)
In this lesson, students will gain a better understanding of natural events and consider the dangers that natural hazards and natural disasters pose to humans. The lesson is from National Geographic Expeditions for grades 6-8.
Difficulty: intermediate


Volcanoes (USGS) (Cycle A)
A series of lessons on volcanoes from the U.S. Geological Survey. For grades 4-12.
Difficulty: beginner


Earth Exploration Toolbook: Evidence for Plate Tectonics (Cycle B)
Through the use of the data visualization tool, My World GIS, users will construct a world map of evidence to support the Dynamic Earth Theory. After creating a base map and selecting three different lines of evidence from a data library, the user will make selections from the evidence in order to identify relationships among the datasets. By making these queries of fossil, volcano, and earthquake data, an evaluation for the support of the Dynamic Earth Theory can be made. For grades 7-9.
Difficulty: intermediate


Exploring Planets in the Classroom: Volcano Activities (Cycle C)
Hands-on activities about volcanoes from the Hawaii Space Grant Consortium. Includes teacher and student pages. For upper elementary-lower middle school.
Difficulty: intermediate


Volcano Hazards: Describing a Dangerous Mix (Cycle C)
In this lesson, students will work cooperatively to become "Volcano Hazards Experts." Groups will research and create posters illustrating dangers from volcanic eruptions, as well as determine the dangers of specific volcanic eruptions. They will present their research to the class. Finally, students will write about a specific volcanic eruption and present their work orally. For grades 9-12.
Difficulty: intermediate




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Natural hazards
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
        • Geochemical cycles
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Physical processes shape Earth’s surface and interact with plant and animal life to create, sustain, and modify ecosystems. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth’s surface
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How physical systems affect human systems
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