Mini Lesson/Activity

Systems and System Models: Observing Our Planet on Fire (Student Activity)

Mini Lesson

Fire is a powerful force on our planet. From South America's rainforests to Africa's savannas and Australia's highlands, fires touch 30 percent of the land surface. Yet whether naturally occurring or set by humans, fires' effects reach far beyond ravaged lands. Combining satellite observations of fires with a computer model reveals the fires also affect air quality, health, and climate.

Scientific data are used to develop models that describe Earth processes with fidelity and project alternate scenarios when baseline conditions are changed. Scientific models allow us to experiment with and understand a phenomenon that is too small, too large, too fast, or too slow to detect directly using our senses.

Review the questions before watching the video. Then, watch the video and answer the questions. You may want to watch the video more than one time.

  1. Describe the phenomenon you observe.
  2. What patterns do you see in this model?
  3. How do you think Data Visualizers make this video? 
  4. Where do you think these ideas come from?
  5. What are some limits of this model?
  6. How is this model precise?
  7. What benefits are there in using this model?
  8. What scientific principles are guiding this phenomenon?
  9. Predict the future of the phenomenon based on the model you've observed.
  10. What evidence of Earth System interaction (among Atmosphere, Hydrosphere, Biosphere, Cryosphere, Geosphere) do you see?
  11. What question would you like to research based on this model?

Teacher Note

The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments onboard NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites detect fires as small as 250 meters across and measure carbon aerosols within the smoke. Black carbon (soot) impacts air quality and human health, while black and organic carbon both contribute to climate change. A NASA scientist fed fire and other observations into the GEOS-5/GOCART atmosphere model to simulate aerosols' global travels. In a visualization covering September 1, 2006 to April 10, 2007, watch as myriad fires dotting the continents spew carbon-laced smoke clouds that expand and twist along the winds.

Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Center for Climate Simulation, and William Putman

Teachers, these mini lessons/student activities are perfect "warm up" tasks that can be used as a hook, bellringer, exit slip, etc.

Teachers who are interested in receiving the answer key, please contact MND from your school email address at  

We verify that requestors are teachers prior to sending access to the answer keys as we’ve had many students try to pass as teachers to gain access. 

To receive the keys please provide the following:

  1. The link to the school/institution’s teacher directory where you are employed so we can verify that you are a teacher
  2. Ensure that the school email address is provided in your response as we are unable to send to personal email accounts