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San Diego Phenomena

Phenomena in Science Education

Phenomena are the natural and man-made observable events that provide context for the work of scientists and engineers. Recent science standards changed the focus from learning about science to figuring out science. Phenomena are a powerful way to engage students and empower them to wonder and investigate.

Sometimes, we look too hard for the phenomenal events and miss the every-day occurrences that are just as intriguing. The list below is a constant work in progress and will be updated as new submissions are received and new occurrences are observed in and around San Diego County.

Submit a Phenomenon

Did you observe something that made you stop and wonder? Share your phenomena and any supporting material like photographs, videos or additional resources.

San Diego County waterfalls

Image: MaiVibe, YouTube

Gravity influences water and causes it to flow to the lowest point. How does this water get to some of San Diego's highest points in the first place? Where does this water come from and why is the waterfall more intense at certain times but not at others? What can waterfalls tell us about Earth cycles? 

There are numerous waterfalls in San Diego County. Some of the taller waterfalls can be found in East County, such as the Three Sisters Waterfall in Cleveland National Forest. 


SanDiego.org: San Diego Waterfalls

NASA: The Water Cycle

USGS: The Water Cycle

NGSS Connections

K-ESS2-1, ESS2.D: Weather and Climate

3-ESS2-1, ESS2.D: Weather and Climate

MS-ESS2-4, ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes

Dry dock vessels can sink and float

Image: U.S. Navy, YouTube

Right under the Coronado Bridge is California's largest floating drydock. This vessel, christened Pride of California, purposefully floods itself and sinks low enough so a ship can sail inside. The dry dock can then resurface, bringing the ship inside it out of the water for repairs. 

How can a vessel sink and float on command? What causes a vessel to float? Why do some objects sink and some float? 


YouTube: USS Montgomery Enters Drydock

NGSS & Grade:

MS-PS1-2, PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter

This sailboat hovers above the water

Image: Tilly Lock, YouTube

You might spot an interesting-looking sailboat in Mission Bay, a boat that moves fast and appears to hover just above the water. These small sailboats are called Moths and there's plenty of science and engineering that went into making this watercraft the agile speedster that it is.

How does the boat lift out of the water and how does this design increase performance? What can we see above the water and what is not visible under the water? How does an airplane lift upwards and how are those principals similar and different than those on a Moth? 


YouTube: 2017 Australian National Moth Championship

MIT: Tina Rosado, Hydrofoils

The Inertia: How Hydrofoils Work 

NGSS Connections:

MS-PS2-1, PS2.A: Forces and Motion


It snows in some parts of San Diego County but rains in others

 Image: Caltech Astronomy, Palomar Observatory

A winter storm in San Diego might bring several inches of snow to Palomar Mountain but only rain to nearby Valley Center. Why does it rain in some places but snow in other places? 

It is more likely to snow at higher elevations and rain at lower elevations. Higher elevations are closer to the Sun, so why are higher elevations cooler?


Scientific America: If heat rises, why does the temperature decrease at higher elevations?

UC Santa Barbara: Why is it colder at a higher altitude when technically it is closer to the sun?

NGSS Connections

K-ESS2-1, ESS2.D: Weather and Climate

3-ESS2-1, ESS2.D: Weather and Climate

5-ESS2-1, ESS2.A: Earth Materials and Systems

MS-ESS2-5, ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes

High tide in Mission Bay happens at a different time than in La Jolla


If the moon's pull from 239,000 miles away causes tides, than why do high and low tides vary between two locations within close proximity of one another? How does location influence the tide timing? Use the NOAA information below to compare data from Scripps Pier in La Jolla and Quivira Basin in Mission Bay.


NOAA Tide Chart: Scripps Pier, Ja Jolla

NOAA Tide Chart: Quivira Basin, Mission Bay


MS-ESS1-1, Earth's Place in the Universe

Jets are louder at night than during the day

Image: Cpl. Donato Maffin

Residents around Tierrasanta, Mira Mesa and Clairemont are correct when they claim airport noise at Miramar is louder at night than during the day, but why? How does the time of day change the way sound travels?


University of Illinois: Ask the Van

San Diego Airport: Noise Explained

The Vane: The Weather is About to Make Your World Much Louder

NGSS Connections:

MS-PS4-2, PS4.A: Wave Properties

MS-ESS2.A: ESS2.D: Weather and Climate, when weather conditions change how sound travels.

HS-PS4-1, PS4.A: Wave Properties


Ants travel in lines

Image: Zachary Hunt, YouTube

Spring time in Southern California brings out the ants. When ants swarm that crumb on your kitchen counter, they will likely travel in a straight line to get there. Why do ants move in lines and how do ants known to follow this path? What would happen if we obstructed that path with a solid object? 


YouTube, Ants Travel in Lines

NGSS Connections:

3-LS2-1, LS2.D: Social Interactions and Group Behavior

4-LS1-1, LS1.A: Structure and Function, LS1.D: Information Processing

MS-LS1-8, LS1.D: Information Processing



Fly with jets of water

Image: Jetpack America

For a number of years, a San Diego company in Mission Bay provided rides on a water-powered jetpack. How can a jet of water lift a person off the ground? Use this animated visual as reference. For a similar non-San Diego reference, show a photograph or video of a firefighter holding a high-pressure fire hose. 


Popular Science: A Beginner's Guide to Flyboarding

NGSS Connections

MS-PS2-1, PS2.A: Forces and Motion

HS-PS2-1, PS2.A: Forces and Motion

Algal blooms can turn the ocean red

Image: Eddie Kisfaludy

Sometimes, the ocean turns a shade of red that can be observed on shore or from the sky. 


Scripps: New study show red tides can be predicted

NGSS Connections:

MS-LS1-6, LS1.C: Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms