Free Earth Science Unit Study Part 5 - Volcanos, Tsunamis and Earthquakes

This is an eleven week Earth science unit study perfect for kids in 3rd-5th grades which covers tectonic plates, earthquakes, mountain formation, sea floor spreading, volcanoes, tsunamis, glaciers and erosion. The lessons are activity intensive but also incorporate books, video documentaries, research and discussions opportunities.

Week 1 - Tectonic Plates, Earthquakes and Mountains
Week 2 - Sea Floor Spreading
Week 3 - Volcanoes Introduction
Week 4 - Strata and Shield Volcanoes
Week 5 - Caldera Volcanoes
Week 6 - Tsunamis
Week 7 - Glaciers
Week 8 - Mountains
Week 9 - Erosion - Science Fair
Week 10 - Erosion Part 2
Week 11 - Erosion - Angle of Rest

Week 1:Tectonic Plates

Volcanoes, earthquakes and mountains are all related through tectonic plates. Tectonic plates are in constant motion. They smash together, drift apart, slip beneath one another and sometimes crack. Whenever and wherever they move earthquakes occur. Volcanoes are formed by the magma seeping out anywhere it has an opportunity. Mountains form when two plates smash together and crumple raising the ground between them.

Read the book Quake!: Disaster in San Francisco, 1906 which is a fictional story written for children. During the earthquake a young Jewish boy is separated from his family. Soon after the quake, he rescues and befriends a young Chinese boy. Together the two face discrimination, and feel the welcome of people from other backgrounds on their journeys to locate their families. 

Just days before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake a filmmaker from Chicago mounted a camera on a street car and set the car in motion while recording. The film captures the chaos of the busy city with horse drawn carriages, motor cars, street cars, few traffic rules, no cross walks and people everywhere. Watch the 1906 San Francisco video.

There is a stark contrast between the above movie and this one which shows still photos of the earthquake damage.

To demonstrate how plate tectonics work, spread cream cheese (magma) on a plate and place two crackers (tectonic plates) on the top.
Move the crackers around and observe what happens to the cream cheese.

As the plates are pushed together and one slips beneath, magma between the plates is forced up. This is what happens at the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Now moisten the crackers with water so they will fold.

As the two plates crash into each other they fold and the ground raises between them. This is how the Himalaya Mountains were formed.

Week 2: Sea-Floor Spreading

Earthquakes, mountains, tsunamis, and volcanoes are all related through the movement of tectonic plates. Volcanoes are located where tectonic plates meet, where they part, and at cracks and holes withing the plates. The Pacific Ring of Fire is a prime example of plates sliding beneath one another resulting in volcanic activity.

Earthquakes are common in the region of Indonesia and there are many volcanoes. The entire west coast of California is an earthquake zone and contains many volcanoes. Indonesia and California lie on the Pacific Ring of Fire where tectonic plates collide. On a blank outline maps mark locations of major volcanoes.

Watch the video How the Earth was Made - The Deepest Place on Earth. It is available on the History Vault, a low cost streaming service from the History Channel.

The Marianas's Trench, the deepest place on Earth is the primary location at which land sinks back into the Earth's core. Originally discovered during the 1800's, it took almost a century before scientists could explain how it works.

Read Volcanoes: Journey to the Crater's Edge which is a photo-filled picture book of volcanoes across the world. The introduction explains the ways volcanoes are created, and each subsequent page provides a few paragraphs that detail a different volcano or volcanic landscape.

When plates slide apart magma can seep out. This phenomenon, known as sea floor spreading, results in the creation of new land. One place this occurs is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge beneath the surface of the ocean. Follow Janice VanCleave's A+ Projects in Earth Science: Winning Experiments for Science Fairs and Extra Credit to create a model of sea floor spreading.

In this project, the cylindrical container represents the surface of the Earth. Cut a slit into the container to represent the mid-ocean ridge. The paper emerging from the ridge is formed as the tectonic plates move away from each other and magma rises beneath the surface to fill the gaps.

As the magma forming new sea floor cools, the magnetic particles within the rock align with the Earth's magnetic field. Since the field has changed directions many times in the past, by matching aligned particles, rates of spreading can be calculated.

To model how the magnetic particles align with the magnetic field over time and move apart from the mid-ocean ridge, color the new land as it emerges from the Earth.

Over time, land created at the same time on opposite sides of the ridge moves farther and farther apart.

As new land is created, some land returns to the center of the Earth.

To represent this, cut two additional slits into the surface of the Earth. The paper that representes the land is attached to a pencil.

As the pencil is spun, new land simultaneously is created and destroyed.

Week 3: Introduction to Volcanoes

There are four major types of volcanoes; cinder cone, strata, shield, and caldera. Cinder cone volcanoes tend to be small and have only one pipe in which magma flows from underground out to the surface. Strata volcanoes are found throughout the world, but are the primary type which lie on the Pacific Ring of Fire. They are shaped like mountains and are extremely explosive because of their sticky lava. Shield volcanoes form over openings in the Earth's crust and tend to have runny lava that flows for long distances. Because the lava is runny, shield volcanoes tend to be much flatter than strata volcanoes. The Hawaiian and Icelandic volcanoes are shield volcanoes. Caldera are huge regions which contain geothermic underground activity. They are formed when land collapses into the underground magma chamber after a volcanic eruption. Yellowstone is a caldera.

To learn more about volcanoes watch How the Earth was Made; Ring of Fire and How the Earth was Made; San Andreas Fault. They are available on the History Vault, a streaming service from The History Channel. In addition, watch the following videos and read the following books.

Volcanoes 101

This 4 minute video explains the types of rocks produced by volcanic eruptions.

Hill Of Fire (I Can Read, Book 3)

Geologists and construction companies often perform a procedure known as soil boring, to determine what lies underground. The process results in cylindrical-shaped tubes of ground in which the underground layers are visible. By analyzing the layers, scientists can determine the history of the area where the boring was taken. The layers can indicate events such as flood, drought, and volcanic activity.

Make or purchase a cheese cake and do a soil boring project with straws.

Wrap the cake with aluminum foil so the kids can not see what was inside.

Stick straws into the cake thereby filling with underground surface layers.

Blow the borings out of the straws onto a plate where the layers are clearly visible. Make up stories to go with the layer.

Week 4: Strata and Shield Volcano

The lava in strata volcanoes is very sticky or viscous and over time can plug the opening where magma escapes from the Earth. Strata volcanoes like those of Krakatoa and Mt. Saint Helens are often very explosive and have violent eruptions. In contrast, the lava in shield volcanoes, like those in Hawaii, is runny and flows easily away from the vent.

Watch How the Earth was Made - Krakatoa and Anak Krakatou which is available on The History Vault. Located in Indonesia, in 1883, Krakatoa blew itself off the map. Today, its child, Anak Krakatou, grows over 12 feet per year.

Because the lava in Krakatoa was very sticky it formed a plug. Over time, new magma rising to the surface increased the pressure on the plug. Just as Krakatoa blew up in the past, one day in the future, a major eruption of Anak Krakatau is expected.

Watch How the Earth was Made - Hawaii which tells a very different story. The Hawaiian Islands were formed from a volcanic hot spot under a tectonic plate. As the plate drifts, the hot spot just punches a new hole where lava flows out. The hot spot annually produces millions of cubic yards of lava which enable the big island to increase in size by over one mile every year.

To demonstrate how lava flows, but at different rates, measure the viscosity of several liquids found commonly in the house.

Compare the viscosity of several liquids by measuring the time required for the liquid to spread over the surface of a plate.

Test honey, molasses, shampoo, dish soap, ketchup and milk.

Spoon or pour a small amount of the test substance onto the plate and start a timer.

Stop the timer when the liquid quits moving.

Retest all of the liquids after heating them in hot water.

Create a simple table and record the times. Heating all the liquids should make them less viscous. Honey should be the most viscous liquid and milk the least.

Read Jamari's Drum which tells the story of how Jamari restores order in his African village after the volcano erupts. It is perfect for ages 4-10.

Read The House on the Volcano which  is a short chapter book set on a Hawaiian Island. Two children disagree over whether Madame Pele is responsible for the volcanic eruption, or whether there is a scientific explanation. Written in the 1960's a few parts would likely be rewritten today so you may want to preview this story.

Read Mount St. Helens Volcano: Violent Eruption (American Disasters) which is a non-fiction book that tells the story of the Mount St. Helens eruption. It gives us a glimpse into what people were doing, how they survived, and how the eruption effected the region.  

Week 5: Caldera Volcanoes

Did you know there is a huge volcano under Yellowstone National Park? It's not just any volcano, but a super volcano. When it erupts it could create major climate change. The last monstrous eruption occurred 640,000 years ago and covered much of North America with ash and global temperatures dropped. It has erupted several times in the past and someday will again.

Watch How the Earth was Made - Yellowstone on the History Vault. The video tracks scientists as they search for clues to the volcano's past.

Watch this short video which explains what a Caldera Volcano is and gives a brief idea of the destruction it can cause.

Because there are both water and volcanic activity under the ground at Yellowstone National Park, there are geysers. This video explains how geysers work.

This video explains how to make your own geyser.

aluminum foil

 Basically, water is boiled and the steam and water bubbles are channeled out through the funnel


Week 6: Tsunami

Watch How the Earth Was Made- Tsunami available on the History Vault.

Read the following books.

Tsunami! - When the ocean pulls back, the villagers are curious and walk towards it to investigate. Ojisan is a village elder is not fooled. He's scared, but knows what to do when the Tsunami strikes.

Selvakumar Knew Better - This book tells the true story of how a dog helped save a young boy during the 2004 tsunami.

The Big Wave- This book was about so much more than a tsunami. It told the story of how people dealt with the tsunami years afterwards.

Construct a sand village.

 Pour water down a channel aimed at for the village.

 The water flows out of the channel and destroys the structures on the water side of the sea wall.

Rebuild the village and the repeat entire process several times increasing the amount of water in the tsunami. Note the percent of damage after each trial and create a graph showing water volume vs damage.

Week 7: Glaciers

During the ice ages, glaciers covered much of the land. Today glaciers are located in 15 states and all over the world from the Alps in Europe, to the mountains of Chile. These slow moving rivers of ice are powerful enough to reshape the land. By melting and refreezing, they pick up and retain rocks and other debris within the ice. As the glaciers move, the debris can leave scratch marks on the landscape.

To learn about glaciers watch two documentaries from the How the Earth Was Made series; How the Earth Was Made - Iceland and How the Earth Works - Yosemite.

The geography of Iceland is very unique. Volcanic activity rages underneath massive glaciers. The intensive heat melts the ice and results in massive floods. The floods carry huge boulders downward, while the glacier movement carves the landscape. Yosemite was formed through volcanic and glacial activity. Although most glacier valleys have U-shaped bottoms, the Yosemite valley is V-shaped.

Before the formation was understood, the naturalist John Muir was convinced glaciers played a role in Yosemite. He saw evidence of glacier created scratches on rocks in the valley which were familiar to him from his time spent in the glaciers of Europe. The moraines present in the valley were further indications of glacial activity. His theories were proven many years later. Scientists now believe that after the glaciers receded, the valley was filled with a lake. Sediment from the lake filled in the valley which was later carved into a V-shape by river activity.
Read The Story of the Ice Age by Rose Wyler.
Do this glacier movement activity explained in How the Earth Works (How It Works). There are two basic ways in which glaciers move. In basal slip, the bottom of the glacier picks up bits of debris as it passes over the land. In plastic deformation, the bottom layer of ice deforms due to the intense amount of weight above.

Place a deck of cards on a tray to represent the bottom layer of ice. Place a weight on top of the cards. In this case the tape measure serves as a massive weight from the glacier ice above. As the glacier slides downward, the ice (cards at the bottom slip past each other so that the bottom layer deforms.)

A moraine is a pile of debris located at the end of a glacier. As a glacier moves, the rocks, boulders, trees and other matter are pushed along in front much like a snow plow. When the glacier melts, the debris pile remains as evidence of glacial activity.

Form a glacier by filling a plastic bag with water.

Then drag it across a tray of sand or a across a sandy play area.

Again drag the glacier across the sand. This time watch for the formation of the moraine visible in front of the glacier.

Puncture the plastic bag to model the glacier melting and receding.

As it melts, a valley is formed below the glacier.

Week 8: Mountains

Geologists search for clues to discover how the Earth was made in the How the Earth Was Made series of videos. Items such as rocks, fossils, ridges, and soil boring samples hold keys to the geological past. Watch the Mount Everest, The Alps and The Rockies episodes which all feature the history of mountain making.

Read the children's book How Mountains Are Made (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2).

One way mountains are created is when tectonic plates push against each other forcing them to rise where they meet. To play with different scenarios layer modeling clay and push the ends together. 

Elastic, plastic and fracture are the three types of deformation. All three are part of the mountain formation process.

Elastic deformation is best demonstrated with a rubber band or a piece of elastic. After it is stretched it returns to its initial form.

Plastic deformation can be demonstrated by gently pulling silly putty apart. The putty changes shape, but does not break.

Fracture deformation happens when putty is pulled quickly apart.

Play with silly putty and a piece of elastic to model the three types of deformation.

Week 9: Erosion

One type of erosion occurs when ground gets broken off by a river or a stream. This is sometimes bad because it can change the river's course by clogging it up. Sometimes erosion happens right under houses. Erosion is bad for farmers because it washes away loose ground. Erosion happens fast or slow on different kinds of ground.

Test several types of soil by pouring water on equal amounts of soil to determine which erodes the fastest.

sand, mud and leaves, compost, shovel, watering can with water, scale

Weigh the compost, sand and mud. Form the compost, sand and mud into mounds on an incline. In this photo, the shovel was used as the incline. Pour water slowly for five seconds on each kind of soil then wait for the soil to dry. Once it is dry weigh the soil to see how much has eroded away.

Write about your results to share what you did with others.

Week 10: Erosion Part 2

Erosion is an ongoing naturally occurring phenomenon which is both destructive and beneficial. Erosion changes landscapes and is a vehicle for nature to recover. Continue reading the book Rocks, rivers & the changing earth,: A first book about geology, (Young Scott books).

Watch the video Megastructures - Breaking Up the Biggest Dam. Dams built for people to harness power can become obsolete and are not always good for nature. This video is about the challenge an engineering team faced when trying to break up a massive dam and return a river to its normal state. The amount of sediment accumulated behind the dam during its existence is quite impressive and an interesting example of erosion.

 Megastructures - Breaking Up the Biggest Dam

Watch How the Earth Was Made - Grand Canyon available on The History Vault which explains how the Grand Canyon was formed through a long process of erosion.

Form a few clay balls and let them sit outside in the weather for several weeks.

Watch over the course of time as the appearance of the balls changes as the soft materials are washed away by rain and wind. You may see some dramatic effects of water and ice due to the cold. Cold can be simulated by placing the clay balls in the freezer.

Seeds have an enormous capability to cause erosion. Once they are embedded in rock, water can cause them to sprout. Their sprouting strength is strong enough to crack rock.

To demonstrate this, fill a water bottle with beans and then top it off with water. Screw the cap on tight and then observe the bottle over the course of several days.

As the beans soak up the water the pressure inside the bottle immediately increases. This is evident by feeling the hardness of the bottle.

As time goes on the beans are able to deform the bottle.

Ice can deform a bottle in the same way. Fill a water bottle full of water and place it into the freezer. Remove the bottle after four hours or more and observe what happens.

Week 11: Erosion - Natural Angle of Rest

Some materials have big angles of rest, or will stack into the steepest hill. Hills of materials such as corn, sand, gravel and rock, each have a unique steepness. Some materials will stack nicely into a very steep hill, where as others will slide down until nearly flat.

Pull several items from the kitchen cupboards to determine angle of rest following the procedure in How the Earth Works (How It Works).

First, pour the material into a one cup container.

Next poured it against a sheet of white paper held steady with a piece of cardboard, from a height of 8 inches.

Then sketch the hill onto the white paper.

Mark the base and top of the hill with points, and connect the points with a strait edge.

Measure the angle of the hill with a protractor.

Then repeat the process with many different substances.

The bigger and smoother the grains the flatter the hill. Flour stacks into the steepest hill, and both popcorn and pinto beans are nearly flat. Sunflower seeds and tapioca are in the middle.

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