Lesson Plans

Using Aerosol Data to Find Evidence of Volcanic Activity

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Grade Band

Lesson Duration

NGSS Crosscutting Concepts

GLOBE Protocol

Instructional Strategies

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Students will use NASA satellite data of aerosol optical depth and sulfur dioxide as a tool to find evidence of volcanic activity at Kilauea, HI.

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze data to find evidence of volcanic activity
  • Analyze more than one data source for evidence of activity
  • Make a claim based on evidence of how aerosols and sulfur dioxide data are related
  • Share your findings with others

Essential Questions

How can satellite data be used to detect and monitor volcanic activity?

Materials Required

Teacher Slide:

  • Google SlideUsing Aerosol Data to Find Evidence of Volcanic Activity - Teacher Slide

Per Group:

  • Monthly Aerosol Images for Students (Link to Jamboard)
  • Monthly SO2 Images for Students (Link to Jamboard)
  • Ten Year Aerosol Graph Student Sheet (Link to Jamboard; see last slide)
  • Ten Year SO2 Graph Student Sheet (Link to Jamboard; see last slide)

Per Student:

  • Student Sheet


NOTE: Virtual Teachers:  Make a copy of the Google Forms LogoGoogle Form of your choice so that you may assign it directly from your Google Drive into your Learning Management System (e.g., Google Classroom, Canvas, Schoology, etc.).  Do you need help incorporating these Google Forms into your Learning Management System?  If so, read this google doc logo Guide to Using Google Forms with My NASA Data. 

Technology Requirements

  • Internet Required
  • One-to-a-Group
  • Teacher computer/projector only

Prerequisites Student Knowledge

  • Basic understanding of aerosols or particles found in the atmosphere.

Student Misconception

  • All types of pollution cause global warming (aerosols, acid rain) (Source LASP, University of Colorado)
  • Gas makes things lighter. Air has no weight, color or odor and is in effect invisible and inconsequential. (Source: Ohio State University)


Engage Prior Knowledge

Pose the following questions to students:

  1. What are some of the effects of volcanic activity?
  2. How are volcanoes found in the geosphere related to the atmosphere?
  3. How can volcanoes be hazardous to living things in the atmosphere?

Discuss these for a few minutes with students. If students identify volcanic emissions of gases into the Atmosphere, shift the discussion to aerosols and sulfur dioxide and provide background information. If they do not bring up volcanic emissions, tell the students that among other volcanic hazards, emissions gases and particles which enter into the air are also serious hazards.  

Build Background (if needed)

If students are unfamiliar with aerosols, show students a video about aerosols

  1. Discuss the following questions with the students.
    1. Identify different sources of aerosols. (dust, salt from ocean spray, volcanoes, smoke from fires, smokestacks, tailpipes)
    2. What are the effects of aerosols? (Can cool by reflecting sunlight, collect water vapor to build a cloud, trap sunlight and heat air to prevent clouds from forming, host chemical reactions which damage the ozone layer, cause health problems such as lung and heart disease, be part of haze)
    3. How does NASA study them? (satellites, instruments on International Space Station, specialized aircraft and ground instruments)
    4. Why does NASA study them? (understand the environment and how climate is changing) 
  2. Ask the following question. If there are so many different sources of aerosols, how can we know that the aerosols we are seeing in data are from a volcano? (Accept reasonable ideas at this point.)

Begin Exploration

  1. Show the NASA video: Fire, Ice, and Safer Skies: NASA Satellites Track Volcanic Clouds which describes hazards of volcanic emissions.
    • Have students identify the answers to the following questions.
      1. What are some things you observed in the video? 
      2. What is a way in which satellites can help NASA scientists when observing sulfur dioxide?
        • ​​​​​Although volcanic clouds of ash are difficult to distinguish, sulfur dioxide is detected by sensors on NASA’s Aura, Aqua, and Suomi NPP satellites. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is a gas, the ash is small solid particles called particulates or aerosols. Scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center developed a way to use sulfur dioxide as a proxy to identify and track ash clouds. The term "proxy" means it is something that is often found with another material/process.  In this case, the ash. If scientists can measure the sulfur dioxide, they can determine where the ash is likely to be, as well. 
      3. How does this information help pilots? 
      • ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The volcanic ash consists of sharp-edged silicate particles which can abrade and erode aircraft parts and melt into volcanic glass in jet engines. The ash clouds are difficult to spot away from the volcano because they don’t show up on airborne weather radar and can look like weather clouds from the cockpit. They can impact aviation and ash can melt into glass in plane engines. NASA is tracking sulfur dioxide emissions to help make emission path predictions to give warnings for aviation. Aviation is a word that means flying or operating aircraft such as planes, helicopters, etc.
  1. Review student answers.
  2. Have a general discussion around the following topics:
    1. What data does NASA collect to better understand volcanic emissions?
    2. How does NASA collect these data?
    3. How do the data change over time?
    4. How does this information help pilots?
  3. Present the following question to students:  "If there are so many different sources of aerosols, how can we know that aerosols we are seeing in data are from a volcano?" Tell students that they will analyze data from Kilauea in Hawaii to help answer this question. 
  4. Describe Kilauea and set the stage for this data analysis activity. Kīlauea is one of the most active volcanoes in the world; it is located in the Hawaiian Islands and is one of the youngest volcanoes in the island chain. Show elements of the Youtube Video by the National Park Service garner excitement.

Analyze Data

  1. Students will work in groups to analyze data obtained in the months around a major eruption of Kilauea. 
    • Show students the animation of sulfur dioxide in the spring of 2008.  The color bar shows the concentration of SO2 in the air column.  Identify with students the color associated with high vs. low values. The units of these measurements is Dobson Units (DU; 1 DU equals = 2.69 × 10^16 molecules cm^−2 ).
  2. Have students answer the following questions.
    • Was there any noticeable change? If so, when?  To what degree did the data values change?

Digging Deeper

  1. Distribute the Monthly SO2 Images for Students (pdfs or Jamboard) to half of the class (Group A) and the Monthly Aerosols for Students (pdfs or Jamboard) to Group B, the remaining students.
    • Have students analyze the data for each month and look for patterns.
      • Consider using the Map Data Question Sheet and Cube to engage students to go deeper into their data.  For example, students may select the map showing the greatest change.  Have students use the cube and question guide for aerosols and SO2 values for June 2018. They will need a separate sheet of paper to write on.
      1. How do the data change?
      2. What is the rate of change in the data from month to month?
      3. What patterns do you observe in the way that the data change over time?
  2. Students will then analyze the graph showing one decade (2008-2018) of values for their variable (Group A:  Ten Year SO2 Graph Student Sheet and Group B: Ten Year Aerosol Graph Student Sheet
    • Students may use Graph Cube Questions and Cube to analyze these data.
  3. Have students discuss their graph with the group.
    • Does this graph agree with the images for the same variable? 
    • What was the trend over the course of a year? decade?
    • Was there any noticeable change? What might have caused this?
    • How is the rate of change changing over time? Is this to be expected in the future?
  4. Now have students switch the graph with the opposite group.  Compare the graphs with one another.
    • What are the similarities and differences among the aerosol and SO2 graphs?
    • What patterns do you see?
    • How might have the volcanic activity caused the pattern you observe?
      • How do you know that the volcano caused the change in aerosol or SO2? Example. Changes in aerosols were harder to identify than the change in SO2 values.
      • Does the fact that the data showed _______ always happens (after/whenever) _____ occurs mean that ______ causes __________?  Why/why not? Example. There appears to be an increase in aerosols at the same time SO2 values increase; there are other factors that also contribute to aerosol values. The aerosol values are harder to analyze; the data are noisier.
      • What would you predict would happen if the volcanic activity would decrease.  How would this affect SOvalues?  aerosol values?  Example. The SOvalues would significantly decrease at the same time; aerosols would decrease, too, although not as much as the SOvalues.

Make a Claim and Support With Evidence

  1. Have students make a claim using SO2 data in relation to aerosols, volcanic eruptions, and safety.  Example.  Volcanic eruptions can be more quickly detected by monitoring sulfur dioxide, as opposed to aerosols, and therefore create safer conditions for planes and passengers.
  2. What evidence do you have to support this claim?  Accept all reasonable answers.  Answers may include topics related to the following: 
    • Aerosols are commonly found around the world.
    • Ash is only one component of aerosols.
    • It is difficult to say with confidence that the aerosols concentrations observed in the maps are caused by volcanic activity.  
    • SO2  values in the maps are easier to identify and evaluate than aerosols made of ash from volcanoes.  For example, in May 2018, an estimated 10% of the map shows aerosols in the 0.5 or above range.  Whereas elevated SOvalues for May 2018 can be estimated to be less than 5%.

Close the Lesson

  1. Students should share out their claims and evidence with the class.  Initiate discussion in cases where their observations are different. 
  2. Engage students in the process of going deeper in their observations during these times.  Initiate a discussion about the importance of using evidence to support claims.

Teacher Background Information

NASA Monitoring of Sulfur Dioxide from Space 

Sulfur dioxide is a colorless gas with a pungent odor that irritates skin and the tissues and mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, and throat. SO2 emissions can cause acid rain and air pollution downwind of a volcano—at Kīlauea volcano in Hawaii, high concentrations of sulfur dioxide produce volcanic smog (VOG) causing persistent health problems for downwind populations. During very large eruptions, SO2 can be injected to altitudes of greater than 10km into the stratosphere. Here, SOis converted to sulfate aerosols which reflect sunlight and therefore have a cooling effect on the Earth's climate. They also have a role in ozone depletion, as many of the reactions that destroy ozone occur on the surface of such aerosols.

Volcanic Smog (vog) - Image Credit: USGS, Kern, Christoph 2011
Volcanic Smog (vog) is produced from sulfur dioxide gas and is a hazard in Hawaii. Scientists monitor sulfur dioxide emission rates at Kilauea volcano. This image show gasses from the Halema'uma'u crater, located in the summit caldera of Kilauea.

Source 1, Source 2 

Aerosol Remote Sensing and Modeling

The Climate and Radiation Lab (CRL) has a very active group studying the climate and health impacts of airborne particles (“aerosols”). Aerosol particles reflect sunlight, which tends to cool surfaces locally. Some also absorb sunlight, warming and stabilizing the ambient atmosphere while still cooling the surface below, sometimes suppressing cloud formation, and even affecting large-scale atmospheric circulation. In addition, aerosols are essential participants in the formation of cloud droplets and ice crystals, functioning as the collectors of water vapor molecules during the initial stages of cloud development. Particle abundance and properties affect the brightness, thickness, and possibly lifetimes of clouds and ultimately, precipitation and the terrestrial water cycle. And in significant near-surface concentrations, they are pollutants, reducing visibility and raising health risks for those exposed.

Airborne particles originate from a great variety of sources, such as wildfires, volcanoes, exposed soils and desert sands, breaking waves, natural biological activity, agricultural burning, cement production, and wood, dung, and fossil fuel combustion. The particles having the largest direct environmental impact are sub-visible, ranging in size from about a hundredth to a few tenths the diameter of a human hair (about 0.1 to 10 microns). They typically remain in the atmosphere from several days to a week or more, and some travel great distances before returning to the Earth’s surface via gravitational settling or washout by precipitation. As such, they can affect regions thousands of kilometers from their sources: Dust from the Sahara Desert, transported across the Atlantic Ocean, supplies iron to the underlying ocean surface waters, occasionally limits visibility in Florida and the Caribbean, and possibly fertilizes the Amazon basin. Pollution and dust from East Asia sometimes reach North America, and smoke from summertime fires in Siberia, northern Canada, and Alaska darken snow surfaces in the Arctic. 

The global scope of aerosol environmental influences makes satellite remote sensing a key tool for the study of these particles. Desert dust storms, wildfire smoke, and volcanic ash plumes, and urban pollution palls on hot, cloud-free summer days are among the most dramatic manifestations of aerosol particles visible in satellite imagery.

Why Does NASA Study This Phenomenon?

NASA Getting the Big Picture

NASA uses satellites for many different purposes. Watch this video for general information. 

About the NASA Disasters Program

The Disasters Applications area promotes the use of Earth observations to improve prediction of, preparation for, response to, and recovery from natural and technological disasters. Disaster applications and applied research on natural hazards support emergency preparedness leaders in developing mitigation approaches, such as early warning systems, and providing information and maps to disaster response and recovery teams. Source

STEM Career Connections

Geotechnical Engineer - A geotechnical engineer is a type of civil engineer who focuses on the mechanics of the land, rocks, and soils in the building process. This type of engineering includes, but is not limited to, analyzing, designing, and constructing foundations, retaining structures, slopes, embankments, roadways, tunnels, levees, wharves, landfills, and other systems that are comprised of rock or soil.

Data Visualizer - At the core of scientific visualization is the representation of data graphically - through images, animations, and videos - to improve understanding and develop insight. Data visualizers develop data-driven images, maps, and visualizations from information collected by Earth-observing satellites, airborne missions, and ground measurements. Visualizations allow us to explore data, phenomena and behavior; they are particularly effective for showing large scales of time and space, and "invisible" processes (e.g. flows of energy and matter) as integral parts of the models.

Remote Sensing Specialist - Remote sensing scientists use sensors to analyze data and solve regional, national and global concerns. For instance, natural resource management, urban planning, and climate and weather prediction are applications of remote sensing. Many scientists develop new sensor systems, analytical techniques, or new applications for existing systems. They also work to develop and build databases for remote sensing or geospatial; meaning relating to or denoting data that is associated with a particular location, project information. Remote sensing scientists also process aerial or satellite imagery to create products like land cover maps.

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