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Mt. Pinatubo: Cycle A

Topic(s): No topics assigned.



1). Volcanic activity affects global temperatures, cloud cover, atmospheric composition, and local biota.

2). Although a volcanic eruption is a local or regional event, it can affect global climate patterns for years through ash and gas discharge.

3). Because the atmosphere is in balance, large scale additions of sulfur, carbon dioxide, ash, and other elements cause an imbalance and induce atmospheric change

4). Because of the interdependence of the different spheres, changes in the atmosphere due to volcanic eruptions bring about changes in the hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere

5). A volcanic eruption in part of the rock cycle - the cycling of rocks from igneous to sedimentary, to metamorphic and back to sediment.

6). Volcanic eruptions move massive amounts of rock and debris that is carried down hill and into waterways and oceans, effecting the concentration of CO2 and sediment.

7). Volcanoes do not occur randomly around the Earth - they mostly occur at plate boundaries to release heat from within the Earth.


Scenario: 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.


Author: ESSEA Staff, IGES
(703) 312-0823



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



  • 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

Individual Assignment

Sphere Group Study

During this cycle you will become "experts" in the relationship of individual spheres. You will need to study the resources listed under readings, discuss your key ideas in your sphere group discussion space, and then submit your group's work for a grade.

Go to the course discussion space to find out which sphere you are studying during this module.

Read the scenario.


First, submit your individual questions and prior knowledge about this event and Earth system science to your sphere group discussion space. Then prepare a document about your prior knowledge and upload it to ESSEA.


  • Review the Individual Reflection Rubric.
  • Read the scenario.
  • Discuss your ideas about the effect of this event on your sphere in your sphere group discussion space.
  • Prepare and upload your prior knowledge reflection document to ESSEA.
  • Complete the individual reflection rubric.

Deadline: Wednesday, October 10 2018 11:59 PM (Eastern Time)
Upload Assignments
Team Assignment


  • Review the Group Sphere Study Rubric.
  • Describe your sphere in detail in the sphere group discussion space so you can share it with your Event Team next cycle. Refer to An Example of an ESS Analysis reading if you would like to review causal relationships.

Upload your group's most accurate analysis of the Sphere - Event interactions with reasoning and support to ESSEA and complete the rubric.
Deadline: Sunday, October 14 2018 11:59 PM (Eastern Time)
Upload Assignments

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

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.

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