Large Volcanic Eruptions and How They Affect Climate

Cornell University Civic Ecology Lab U.S. Environmental Protection Agency EE Capacity
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Article , Map , Model
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



The directions for this activity start on page 20 of the PDF.


This activity should take about 6, 50 minute class periods. On Day one, students chose to research one of the ten biggest eruptions in history by developing questions to answer and also develop a vocabulary list to be used on the activities for days four and five. On Days two and three, students view two videos about the Krakatoa eruption, each video is 52 minutes long. Students are tasked with writing a journal as a person experiencing the eruption and subsequent tsunami. Days four and five, students use NOAA data to develop maps of volcanic eruptions also including the elevation of the volcano. Students are told in the activity papers, that volcanoes in lower latitudes (between 20oN and 20oS)can affect the climate more than those in other latitudes. After students have mapped the volcanoes, they sort and arrange them by the volcanic eruption index. They then develop a graph showing aerosol dispersion and atmospheric levels. An updated version of the original NOAA activity referenced in the materials for days four and five can be found here: The culminating activity on day six has students use their models and current jet stream and wind speed data to determine the path and travel time of a volcanic ash plume if a chosen Cascade mountain range volcano erupts.


Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • High School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

HS-ESS3-1 Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.

Clarification Statement: Examples of key natural resources include access to fresh water (such as rivers, lakes, and groundwater), regions of fertile soils such as river deltas, and high concentrations of minerals and fossil fuels. Examples of natural hazards can be from interior processes (such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes), surface processes (such as tsunamis, mass wasting and soil erosion), and severe weather (such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts). Examples of the results of changes in climate that can affect populations or drive mass migrations include changes to sea level, regional patterns of temperature and precipitation, and the types of crops and livestock that can be raised.

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Included in the teacher’s information is a Scientific American article, “How Do Volcanoes Affect Climate?” Incorporation of this article as an initial activity, is important because it would anchor the phenomena of volcanic eruption and why it’s important to predict ash paths. Students are not asked to predict what potential climatic changes (local and global) could occur based on their predicted path and travel time for the ash plume from their chosen volcano. Teachers could have students do research on the specific gases that are released by volcanoes and their effects on life at different altitudes ( or Further research into large volcanic eruptions and effects on climate ( could allow students to start to see patterns of past climate change. Incorporating this into their model, would make this performance expectation more explicit.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students use data about past volcanic eruptions and types of eruptions along with jet stream information to predict the path of an ash plume after the eruption of a Cascade mountain range volcano. Students analyze large volcanic eruptions and their ash plume paths to help generate their predictions. To increase students understanding of how the ash plume path could affect other systems than geologic and atmospheric, they could also predict possible biological losses and affect on water quality.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
While students are tasked with predicting the path of an ash plume, they are not asked to predict the plume’s effects on the regional and global climate. Further study into potential effects of volcanic ash on climate would help students to also use their model to predict climatic changes. By looking at graphical illustrations of large volcanic eruptions effects on global temperatures (, students could also develop temperature predictions.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
After watching videos describing the Krakatoa eruption, students are tasked with creating a journal to describe what they were experiencing as the eruption occurred. Students could research other famous volcanic eruptions and their impacts on human history like Pompeii and Montserrat ( , for example. Further study into effects on human population of large volcanic eruptions could also be explored. The Scientific American article includes information on human losses and livestock losses as a result of the eruption of the Laki fissure system in 1783. In addition to predicting the path and speed at which the ash plume will travel in the culminating activity, students could predict effects of the plume on human activities to increase the coverage of this Disciplinary Core Idea.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students are examining the effects of large volcanic eruptions on local and global climate. This could be more explicit by having students also predict what effect the volcanic eruption they use as their prediction could have on local and global climate. Students use the volcanic eruption index to help determine the size of the eruption of their chosen Cascade mountain. This information could be used for the students to determine how much of an effect the volcanic eruption (cause) would have on the local climate, and potentially global climate. Teachers would have to require students to include potential climatic changes in their predictions to fully cover this Crosscutting Concept.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students create a model and use it to predict the path of a volcanic ash plume and its impact on Earth systems. To fully cover the Crosscutting Concept, students will need to identify the limitations of their models. Students should investigate how changes in the jet stream could affect their predictions. The jet stream information they use to develop their prediction can change. Students need to be made aware of those potential changes and discuss how it would alter their prediction.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Students are actively using practices, developing and using models, to make predictions about the path a volcanic ash plume will take. Students use the Disciplinary Core Ideas to identify how volcanic eruptions, like Krakatoa, have impacted human history. To fully address the Disciplinary Core Ideas, students should also make predictions about the impact on regional and worldwide climate as a result of the ash plume. Students use the Crosscutting Concepts to develop a model to make predictions of ash plume movements and to determine how much of an effect a volcanic eruption on a local area. To fully address the Crosscutting Concepts, students will need to explore the reliability of their models (jet stream changes) and again, address possible climatic changes.

  • Instructional Supports: Students are given scenarios which could have an impact on their lives. The videos, while rather long, help provide a personal connection to what it's like to experience a volcanic eruption and tsunami. Students are engaged in three dimensional learning throughout the activity. While students do use authentic scientific data to develop their models, to deepen student’s knowledge on the Disciplinary Core Ideas, students should also explore climatic impacts of volcanic eruptions on local and global climate (see suggested articles). Students have the opportunity to get some peer feedback while developing their models. To increase peer feedback, students could participate in a gallery walk or present their predictions. There are few suggestions on differentiated instruction. Teachers are provided with some extension activities, but will have to determine which strategies to use with struggling learners. Teachers may use some small group learning strategies (think-pair-share or jigsaw) to help students that are struggling.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Teachers have several opportunities to gather evidence of student’s three dimensional thinking throughout the activities. There are no aligned rubrics or scoring guides provided for teachers for any of the activities. Teachers will have to develop their own scoring guides and rubrics for the activities. Students are instructed to generate a vocabulary list as a result of their first investigation, but no possible example vocabulary words are given in the teacher guide.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: A computer with internet access will be needed to access videos and jet stream data.