1. Engage students in the topic by inviting them to share their knowledge of natural disasters.
Ask students to give you examples of natural disasters, including floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, snowstorms, and severe thunderstorms. As a class, determine a working definition of the term natural disaster. Be sure the definition includes the key components of a natural disaster: a natural event or force that causes damage to property and/or loss of life. Have students look back at their list of examples. Ask: Which of these natural disasters are related to weather? (Answer: All in the list above are related in some way to weather except earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis.)
2. Project the U.S. 2017 Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters Map from NOAA’s Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Overview webpage.
Read or summarize the text under the heading “2017 in Context.” Make sure students understand that the number of billion-dollar events in 2017 was significant because it was higher than both the historic and recent five-year average and because of its high economic impact. Point out that the costs of these disasters are calculated by considering property and infrastructure damage and business interruption. Medical costs and loss of life are not considered in the final number. Ask students to make observations about the map. Ask: What types of natural disasters are shown on the map? (Answer: droughts, wildfires, flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, hailstorms, a freeze, and severe weather.) Ask: Did you hear about any of these natural disasters in the news? What would make these events newsworthy? (Answer: Depending on where students live, they may be familiar with any of these events, but the California wildfires and the three hurricanes were covered extensively in the national news. These events are newsworthy primarily because they resulted in great damage to property and possible loss of life.) Ask: What patterns do you notice in the locations of these events? (Answer: Students may notice some types of events seem to be grouped in certain parts of the country.) Ask: Why might such damaging disaster events happen in these locations? (Answer: Students may note some events affected densely populated cities, which might increase the amount of property damage. Similarly, they may observe that some occurred in agricultural areas, which may have affected crops and damaged the economy. What is important for them to recognize is that there could be multiple factors contributing to the costliness of these events.)
3. Have students interpret graphs to understand patterns in the frequency of major natural disasters in the United States over time.
Scroll down to the 1980—2017 Year-to-Date United States Billion-Dollar Disaster Event Frequency graph. Ask students what variables are shown on the x and y axes of the graph (x is months and y is the number of events). Ask: What do the colored and gray lines represent? (Answer: These lines represent specific years.) Ask: What does the black line represent? (Answer: The black line represents the average of all the years in the range represented on the graph.) Ask students to work with a partner to answer a few questions about the graph to ensure they are reading it correctly. They should navigate to the website on their own devices and write the answers to the following questions on a piece of scrap paper:
- Why don’t any of the lines on the graph decrease from left to right? (Answer: They show the cumulative, or total, number of events over the course of the year, so there can’t be fewer events by December than there were in January.)
- How many total billion-dollar disaster events were there in 1988? 1991? 2006? 2015? (Answer: 1, 4, 6, 10)
Walk around and check students’ answers and address any problems with understanding. Then ask students what they observe about the graph. Ask: What general trend do you see? (Answer: They should see that the frequency of billion-dollar events is generally increasing over time.) Once students have identified that trend, challenge them by asking how that could be true, since there were more events in 1989 than there were in 2014. The key is for students to understand that a trend over time does not mean that every year will have more billion-dollar disaster events than the last. Ask students: What are some factors that may explain this general trend? (Answer: There are many reasons students might give, such as population growth, development into areas more at risk for natural disasters, sea-level rise, or climate change.) If students do not mention climate change, introduce the idea to them. Explain that while many factors contribute to any weather event, scientists agree that climate change in general is and will continue to lead to more extreme weather events—from droughts to flooding to hurricanes. Now scientists are increasingly looking at the role climate change is playing in specific disaster events. Review the basic causes and consequences of climate change before moving to the next step.
4. Watch a video about the 2017 California wildfires.
Tell students they are going to focus on two extreme weather-related disaster events and look for evidence that climate change played a role. Divide students into groups of two or three and distribute the Analyzing a Natural Disaster Event handout to each student. Go over the questions on the worksheet with students so they are familiar with them. Review the environmental conditions that make wildfires more likely. Show the first minute and 35 seconds of the PBS NewsHour Segment Climate change is part of California’s perfect recipe for intense wildfire. Pause the video and ask students to briefly explain the evidence Park Williams gives linking climate change to an increase in wildfires generally. Explain that they will now watch and listen for evidence that climate change contributed to the California wildfires specifically. Continue playing the video. Ask students to just watch the first time through with the questions on the worksheet in mind, but not to try to complete the worksheet at this point. Pause the video frequently to discuss and check for understanding. Then replay the video, and this time ask students to complete the worksheet as they watch. Provide support for students as they work by pausing the video, rewinding, and modeling how to answer the questions as needed.
5. Have students research Hurricane Harvey and analyze evidence that climate change contributed to the severity of the flooding during the hurricane.
After students have completed the worksheet while watching Climate change is part of California’s perfect recipe for intense wildfire, distribute another copy of the worksheet to each group. As a class, review the environmental conditions that lead to a hurricane. In groups, have students research Hurricane Harvey, and use the worksheet to analyze the effect climate change had on the flooding from the storm. Some useful websites are listed in the Resources for Further Exploration section.
6. Discuss students’ findings.
Ask students to share their findings and conclusions with the class. Is there a consensus about the role of climate change in the extreme flooding from Hurricane Harvey? If not, what are the arguments for and against? Discuss the differences in the role climate change played in the California wildfires and the role it played in the flooding in Hurricane Harvey. Ask:
- Do you think most hurricanes are affected by climate change? Why or why not?
- Do you think most wildfires are affected by climate change? Why or why not?
- Would these types of disaster events continue to occur even without climate change?
- How might they be different?
- What steps can we take to protect lives, property, and infrastructure as more extreme weather-related natural disaster events become more common?
Assess student understanding by reviewing their work on the Analyzing a Natural Disaster Event handout that they completed about Hurricane Harvey. Additionally, use the final discussion to identify and correct any misconceptions.
Extending the Learning
Monitor the news for weather-related disaster events around the world. Research to see if scientists are able to link the events to climate change. Keep track of any such linkages over the course of the year.
Have students predict how the frequency of billion-dollar natural disaster events will change in the next one hundred years and explain their reasoning.
Have students investigate how natural disaster events affect human migration. Do people leave or move out of the areas after major natural disasters? Use this map of climate change and human migration as a starting point.
Subjects & Disciplines
- Earth Science
- Understand that climate change impacts the likelihood of extreme weather-related natural disaster events.
- Analyze how climate change affected a specific natural disaster event.
- Cooperative learning
- Multimedia instruction
- 21st Century Student Outcomes
- 21st Century Themes
Critical Thinking Skills
- Geographic Skills
Science and Engineering Practices
- Analyzing and interpreting data
- Engaging in argument from evidence
- Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices
National Geography Standards
- Standard 15: How physical systems affect human systems
Next Generation Science Standards
- MS. Earth and Human Activity: MS-ESS3-5. Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.
- MS-ESS3-2: Analyze and interpret data on natural hazards to forecast future catastrophic events and inform the development of technologies to mitigate their effects.
What You’ll Need
Materials You Provide
- Copies of Worksheets
The resources are also available at the top of the page.
- Internet Access: Required
- Tech Setup: 1 computer per small group, Projector, Speakers
- Plug-Ins: Flash
- Large-group instruction
- Small-group work
For years, scientists have known that climate change can lead to more extreme weather events. More recently, scientists have begun to explore the role that climate change plays in specific weather-related natural disaster events. Linkages between certain extreme weather events and climate change can increasingly be made while the weather event is relatively recent, which can help to highlight the need for climate change mitigation. In 2017, scientists made connections between two weather-related natural disaster events in the United States—the California wildfires and the flooding from Hurricane Harvey.
Recommended Prior Activities
gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.
tropical storm with wind speeds of at least 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour. Hurricanes are the same thing as typhoons, but usually located in the Atlantic Ocean region.
an event occurring naturally that has large-scale effects on the environment and people, such as a volcano, earthquake, or hurricane.
uncontrolled fire that happens in a rural or sparsely populated area.
- NOAA: Hurricanes
- NASA: What Are Hurricanes?
- NOAA: How does a hurricane form?
- PNAS: Assessing the present and future probability of Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall
- PRI: Scientists pinpoint link between climate change and Hurricane Harvey's record rainfall
- Washington Post: Climate change upped the odds of Hurricane Harvey’s extreme rains, study finds
- Scientific American: Global Warming Tied to Hurricane Harvey
- New York Times: Scientists Link Hurricane Harvey’s Record Rainfall to Climate Change
- National Geographic: How Climate Change Likely Strengthened Recent Hurricanes
- EPA: A Student's Guide to Global Climate Change—Warmer Oceans