Natural hazard sequence: drought to wildfire to flood

Created by NASA Wavelength Last updated 2/21/2018

Earth’s systems are dynamic and interacting and cause feedback effects (ESS2.A). This sequence of natural hazards (ESS3.B) illustrates these delicate relationships: a change in weather can cause severe droughts; the resulting loss of vegetation increases the probability and severity of wildfires; the destruction of ground cover results in an increase in precipitation runoff, leading to floods and debris flows. These resources allow students to use the recent events in southern California to support the claim that a change in one of Earth’s systems can cause changes to others.

This list supports the following national standards:
Next Generation Science Standards
  • Water Conservation

    During a drought, it is important- and may even be required- to conserve the available freshwater supply. This lesson emphasizes the importance of freshwater and prompts students to consider actions to help conserve it.
    AAAS Benchmarks: , , 11A/M2, 4B/M7
  • GPM: Too Little, Too Much

    NASA scientists present an overview of the role of NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission in determining droughts, floods, and landslides. Following this introduction, students can use the GPM website for more information related to these topics.
    AAAS Benchmarks: 3A/M2, 4B/M7
  • Groundwater Deficit Out West : Natural Hazards

    A model of underground water content shows students the connection between groundwater and drought. Data from satellites and ground based measurements are displayed on the map of the continental U.S. Students can analyze that data to discover the relative amounts of water stored in underground aquifers and connect that data to long-term drought conditions.
  • Drought in California

    California has experienced extreme drought conditions over many years. These sequential Landsat images (from 2011, 2013. 2014) allow students to discover the role that winter snowfall in near-by mountains plays in affecting not only drought, but also the subsequent potential for wildfires.
  • EO Kids: Fresh Water

    This edition of Earth Observatory for Kids features articles and activities related to fresh water. The article entitled, “Sipping Snow in the Sierras” is particularly relevant to the focus of this resource list. Students may think of drought solely as being the lack of rainfall; it is important to include a discussion on the impacts on drought of a lack of winter snowfall.
  • Smoke and Fire in Southern California : Image of the Day

    Students can compare and analyze these two vivid images- one natural color and the other false color- which show the magnitude of the December, 2017 wildfires in California. The area was primed for major fires due to the lack of precipitation in 2017 combined with the drought of the past 15 years.
  • After a Fire, Before a Flood : Natural Hazards

    Using the June, 2015 Silver Fire in New Mexico as an example, the article explains how satellite images help determine burn severity, which, in turn, allows forest restoration specialists to determine the location of exposed soil. In the southwest and southern California, efforts to mitigate the effects of rainwater on that exposed soil must take place during the four to six week window in between fire season and the start of rains and floods.
  • Erosion and Landslides

    Students create a model of a landslide and compare the effects of two variables: amount of water and composition of base material. They will then examine rainfall data from TRMM/GPM satellites to determine risk areas.
    AAAS Benchmarks: 3A/M2, 11C/M7
  • Post-fire Flooding and Debris Flow

    In addition to flooding, one of the most dangerous post-fire hazards is debris flow. This article provides students with insight into the timing of these events and just how little rainfall it takes to trigger one.
  • Deadly Debris Flows in Montecito : Image of the Day

    Comparing these before and after Landsat images of Montecito, CA. allows students to grasp the severity of the combined forces of two natural hazards- fire and rain/debris flow. The article examines two factors responsible for these debris flows- one of which might be surprising to students.