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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.

Wind and water shape the coastline

Image: Ocean Beach Mainstreet Association

Natural forces shape our land over long periods of time. At the ocean, from the Silver Strand to the cliffs of La Jolla, erosion has the ability to drastically reshape our coastline in a much shorter time period. 


Ohio State University - The Forces that Change the Face of Earth

NGSS & Grade

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

MS-ESS2-2, ESS2.C: The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes

Lizard tails twitch when separated from body

I was moving a garbage can when I saw something small dart out from underneath. That slight startle turned into intrigue when I noticed what was left behind. First, a lizard can severe its own tail on command, an amazing feat by itself, but that tail continues to twitch for a few minutes even after it is disconnected from the lizard's body.


Wired: Severed Gecko Tails have a Mind of Their Own

BioScience: Tail Loss in Lizards

Grunions spawn out of the water

Image: Twin Cities PBS

Grunions reproduce by coming completely out of the water to spawn on beaches in South California and Baja Mexico. Hundreds to thousands of grunions can be observed swimming onshore in what is referred to as a grunion run. 


NBC San Diego: Fish out of water - May 2018 Grunion Run

Grunion Facts and Expected Runs, CA Fish and Wildlife

Grunion Biology, Pepperdine University

Grunions (Season 1, Episode 4)

NGSS & Grade:

Grunion runs follow the cycles of the moon, permitting classroom connections between life science and space science through the crosscutting concept of patterns.

1-ESS1-1, ESS1.A: The Universe and its Stars

MS-ESS1-1, ESS1.A: The Universe and Its Stars

Grunion reproduction process.

3-LS1-1, LS1.B: Growth and Development of Organisms

MS-LS1-4, LS1.B: Growth and Development of Organisms

Automatic garage doors stop working

Image: Orange County Home Garage Doors

Some San Diego residents came home to the frustration of an improperly functioning garage door opener. Even worse, some residents were startled to find their garage door wide open after being away all day. In some neighborhoods, and at sporadic times, garage doors seemingly grew a mind of their own by either not opening or opening at random intervals. 

How do we send signals without wires? What are the benefits of these wireless signals? The drawbacks? Why does a garage door opener only open one door and not the next?


Garage door openers stop working in Rancho San Diego

YouTube: Hunting RFI - IEEE

Radio Frequency Interference - ARRL

How to Fight RFI with Your Gadgets

NGSS & Grade

PS4.C: Information Technologies and Instrumentation

Rocket trails move sideways through the sky

Image: James Rowten

Rockets on launchpads point straight up towards their destination in space. Yet, rocket launches from Vandenburg Airforce Base in Southern California leave sideways rocket trails in the sky over San Diego. Why do rockets appear to move sideways when space is straight up? 


Smithsonian Institute: Why do rockets curve when they go into space instead of going straight up?

Additional Imagery:

Cygnus launch atop an Atlas V rocket

NGSS Connections

5-PS2-1, PS2.B: Types of Interactions

MS-PS2-4, PS2.B: Types of Interactions




Calcium buildup around faucets and hoses

Image: Fleet Science Center

San Diego imports most of its water. That water travels hundreds of miles through rock and soil, which causes a build-up of minerals. These minerals increase the "hardness" of the water, compared to "soft" water that has fewer or no minerals. Calcium, one of the minerals found in San Diego water, can leave white stains around faucets and hoses. 


City of San Diego

San Diego Water Quality Reports 

Distinct features are visible at night from space

San Diego-area at night from space. Image: NASA

Astronauts in the International Space Station snap photographs of Earth from a height of 220 miles above the ground. At night, distinct features appear.

What do you see? What don't you see? What can we learn about the human impact on Earth from so far away? 


NASA: China's Wall Less Great from Space

NGSS Connections:

5-ESS3-1, ESS3.C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems


May and June have fewer sunny days.

Image: UCSD

May Gray. June Gloom. There's data and science to support the time of the year that sees a higher amount of cloud cover near coastal areas in southern California. 



California-Nevada Climate Applications Program

UCSB Geography


The ocean glows blue at night

Image: Erik Jepsen

In May 2018, ocean waves lit up aqua blue at night. The cause was a red tide, or algal bloom, off the coast of San Diego. The ocean waves agitated dinoflagellates in the water, causing a bioluminescent display at the surface. 

According to Scripps, the last bioluminescent phenomena was in 2013 and the observable occurrence can last a few days to an entire month. 


Scripps Institution of Oceanography

University of California Museum of Paleontology

YouTube: Bioluminescent Waves