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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.



But how much do volcanoes lower global temperatures? That is the question. 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.


NASA has developed microsets of Earth science data for K-12 education, which can be used with existing curriculum and enable students to practice math skills using real measurements of Earth system variables and processes.

The microsets are created using data from NASA Earth science satellite missions and provide information on the atmosphere, ocean and land surface. New data types continue to be added to the collection. Data is available online along with K-12 lesson plans, computer tools and an Earth science glossary.

Use the Live Access Server to create your own microsets of NASA data. The LAS contains over 128 parameters in atmospheric and Earth science from five NASA scientific projects Click here for an overview of the parameters and time period available.


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.


Large volcanic eruptions affect the "Greener Greenhouse" (Cycle C)
NASA press release from 2002 summarizing a study in which researchers discovered that tremendous amounts of tiny pollutant particles thrust into the atmosphere by large volcanic eruptions slow plant growth, but still enhance the ability of lands to act as a sink for carbon.


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


Volcanoes (USGS) (Cycle A)
A series of six lessons on volcanoes from the U.S. Geological Survey. For grades 4-8.
Difficulty: intermediate


When Natural Hazards Become Human Disasters (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. Through writing, and by gathering and comparing data, students will examine factors that make hazards a threat to people. This lesson, which can be adapted for older students, is a good accompaniment to giant screen film, Forces of Nature. [Note: It is suggested that this lesson be conducted before students see the film.] The lesson is from National Geographic Expeditions for grades 6-8.
Difficulty: intermediate


Discovery Volcanoes (Cycle B)
In this activity for grades 6-8, students will understand the following:

  • Volcanic eruptions that take place near populated areas can be disastrous.
  • The level of destruction caused by a volcanic eruption depends on several factors, including the kind of volcano eruption and the speed at which the lava or ash flows.
  • Volcanic eruptions can often be predicted.
  • Measures can be taken to help people cope with the disaster of a volcanic eruption. For grades 6-8.

Difficulty: intermediate


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


When the Sulfur Flows You Get Temperature Lows (Cycle B)
Students calculate the disperal rate of sulfur dioxide cloud associated with the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. This investigation is part of a collection from a NASA Earth Science Education CD-ROM Activity Supplement. The CD-ROM is no longer in publication.
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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