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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.

Marine fossils found near Normal Heights

Image: San Diego Natural History Museum

In March 2016, while constructing a bike pathway next to Route 15 between the neighborhoods of Normal Heights and Kensington, surveyors found fossilized whale bones and shells. 

How did these bones and shells get here? Why is evidence of marine life found on dry land? What can this evidence tell us about Earth's processes?


The San Diego Union-Tribune, Whale bones, other marine fossils, found along SR-15 

Washington Post, When California digs, paleontologists are there to bag the fossils -- even whales

NGSS Connections

2-ESS1-1, ESS1.C The History of Planet Earth

4-ESS1-1, ESS1.C: The History of Planet Earth

Sewage water is recycled for irrigation

Image: John Loo

Chances are you've seen roadsigns that say "Using Recycled Water" and if you look close enough, you might also see pipes painted purple nearby. This water is popular for freeway median irrigation use and on farms. How do we recycle sewage water? Isn't all water recycled? Where does our drinking water come from and why is this recycled water not suitable for drinking?

NGSS & Grade:

3-5-ETS1-2, Engineering Design

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

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

MS-ETS1-2, Engineering Design

MS-ETS1-4, Engineering Design

HS-ETS1-1, Engineering Design

Fight wildfires with fire

Image: US Fish and Wildlife

Visitors to Cleveland National Forest might find Forest Service employees purposefully setting fires within park boundaries. The Forest Service even advertises these fires as controlled burn alerts on their website. One of the justifications is that these controlled burns prevent wildfire. This is a literal example of fighting fire with fire, but how does it work? 

In 3-ESS3-1, students are asked to make a claim about the merit of a design solution to reduce the impact of a weather-related hazard. How can fire be used to mitigate wildfire? What steps could be taken to reduce the chance of massive wildfires? 


Forest Service: Controlled Burns

NGSS & Grade:

3-ESS2-1, ESS2.D: Weather and Climate

3-ESS3-1, ESS3.B: Natural Hazards

MS-LS2-1, LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems

HS-ESS2-4, ESS2.D: Weather and Climate

Paragliders at Torrey Pines can launch and land in the same spot

Image: Torrey Pines Gliderport

If a bird stops flapping its wings, it will slowly descend towards the ground. However, hang gliders and paragliders can launch from and land on the cliffs of Torrey Pines. Why don't these gliders descend down to Blacks Beach below or land in the ocean? How can a powerless glider stay at the same altitude for the duration of its flight?


Southwest Airports: Paragliding Physics

Torrey Pines Gliderport - FAQ

NASA - What is Lift? 

NGSS & Grade

3-PS2-1, PS2.A: Forces and Motion

MS-PS2-1, PS2.A: Forces and Motion

Lizards regrow their tails

Image: Muhammed Mahdi Karim

Many of the lizards found around San Diego are capable of autotomy, or self-amputation, of their tails. Lizards can also regrow their tail. Occasionally, during the regrowth process, two or three tails will form.


University of Arizona

NGSS & Grade

MS-LS4-4, LS4.C: Adaptation

Different spiders make different webs


Image: Scott Camazine

Black widow spiders are at the top of list of things to avoid in San Diego due to their poisonous bite. Identifying what types of webs spiders weave helps you identify -- and avoid -- certain types of spiders.

Why do some spiders weave spiral orbs while others weave tangled or tunneled webs?


Sciencing: How to identify spiders by their web pattern

NGSS Connections:

4-LS1-1, LS1.A: Structure and Function

Curtains of clouds form near the coast

Image: Bradley K, San Diego Reader

From May to August, weather at the coast can be drastically different than inland communities. San Diego's marine layer often creates a cloud "curtain" that hovers over the coast. 

Wildfire season is more intense after a wet rainy season

Image: San Diego Fire and Rescue 

Above-average rainfall in California in 2016-2017 was followed by an intense wildfire season in late 2017. 

What is the cause and effect relationship between an intense rainy season followed by an intense wildfire season? Why would one follow the other? Does it also work in reverse, why or why not? 


Climate Central: Can Rain Cause More Fire?

WP: This is why the Northern California fires are spinning out of control

Climate.gov: Why did it rain so much last year?

NGSS & Grade

3-ESS2-1, ESS2.D: Weather and Climate

3-ESS3-1, ESS3.B: Natural Hazards

HS-ESS2-4, ESS2.D: Weather and Climate



This cloud is trapped in a canyon

Image: Fleet Science Center

San Diego's many canyons create some interesting weather-related phenomena. When morning fog rolls in, these low-lying clouds can get trapped in canyons by layers of warmer air. These clouds are sometimes referred to as valley fog. 


NASA's Earth Observatory: Valley Fog

National Geographic: Fog

PBS California: The Science of Fog

NGSS & Grade

MS-ESS2-5, ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface ProcessesESS2.D: Weather and Climate