Natural Disaster Case Studies

Natural Disaster Photo Bar

Natural Disaster Case Studies


Building on the success of our SAGUARO project using the Teach with GIS method, we have created a series of in-depth case studies of natural hazards. The Teach with GIS approach allows students to learn GIS analysis techniques, while exploring an interesting scientific problem.

The case studies span a range of inter-leaved topics.

The 1994 Northridge Earthquake Case Study explores the mystery of how such a major fault could have been missed within a tectonic basin that is one of the most studied in the world. It also helps students understand the relationship between subsurface geology and the damage patterns of an earthquake.

The Cascadia Great Earthquake Suite has five stand alone cases within it that provide a comprehensive understanding of these hazards. These include:

  • An in depth study of the 2004 Sumatra earthquake and tsunami as an analog of a future great earthquake and tsunami in Cascadia. A comparative analysis of the tectonic precursors to the three greatest earthquakes ever recorded and a search for such evidence in Cascadia.
  • An examination of the stratigraphic evidence for past great earthquakes in Cascadia.
  • Determining the impact of a great earthquake on a coastal town in Oregon.
  • Assessing the impact within Seattle of the combined threats of great earthquakes, deep crustal earthquakes and shallow crustal earthquakes.

The Dynamic Watersheds Case Study explores the general characteristics of watersheds and their response to flooding by comparing the Big Thompson watershed in Colorado with the Lower Maume watershed in Ohio. A second unit explores the impact of fire and later floods in the Sabino Canyon watershed in Arizona. Erosion, slope failures and dramatic flood events engage the student in understanding how watersheds work.

Each case study provides an opportunity to integrate many basic Earth science and geography concepts within the context of understanding natural hazards and their impact on society. The cases incorporate Google Earth tools, animations, movies, and other resources to enhance learning and engagement. Designed for lower division undergraduate students with no prior experience using a GIS, they can be modified to work in a high school classroom with a skilled instructor. An instructor’s guide provides key information about how to integrate the materials in a course.

GIS made easier

A common misconception is that you need to teach your students everything about the GIS software before you can begin using these materials. Extensive field testing has shown that our investigations provide sufficient guidance for beginning users and that students learn best by using the software tools with a minimal introduction.

The purpose of these investigations is to explore and learn about natural processes and features and how they relate to human activities. As a bonus, students will learn the basics of GIS. For this reason, all of the data have been assembled into ready-to-use projects, and complex operations have been eliminated or simplified. Although it is helpful for students to have basic computer skills, they do not need experience with GIS software to complete the activities. Directions for each task are provided in the text, so they will learn to use the tool as they explore with it. The case studies barely scratch the surface of the data that have been provided, and students are encouraged to explore the data on their own and make their own discoveries.

We developed these materials for use with PASCO’s MyWorld GIS and ESRI ArcGIS. MyWorld has been discontinued. ESRI ArcGIS is designed for professional users and is available from Many universities have site licenses, making this a good choice. The datasets can also be imported to QGIS, an open source free GIS software.

We welcome feedback on these materials.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under (NSF, Grant Nos. 0521936 & 0341207. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.