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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.

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Halos form around the Sun


In February 2017, this halo was spotted in San Diego and shared on Twitter. Halos are occasionally observed around the sun and moon. Halos are caused by ice crystals in high-altitude clouds and the appearance of a halo can indicate certain weather patterns.

Are halos like rainbows, and if so, how? What causes a halo to appear around the sun? What does the appearance of a halo tell us about the weather? Are sun halos always the same size?


EarthSky, What makes a halo?

Weather Channel, What are sun halos?

NGSS & Grade

3-ESS2-1, ESS2.D: Weather and Climate

Moon appears larger when closer to the horizon

Image: Moon rise through Downtown San Diego buildings. Craig Carter, @SeeMyPhotos

Like the sun, the moon rises and sets in the sky at predictable times. When the moon is close to the horizon during moon rise or moon set, it appears to be much larger than when it is above us. 

Is the moon larger at certain times of the day? How can we determine if the moon is a different size depending on its position in the sky?


National Geographic, Why the moon looks bigger near the horizon?

Discover Magazine, Why does the moon look so huge on the horizon?

NGSS & Grade

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

5-ESS1-2, ESS1.A: The Universe and Its Stars

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

The Catalina Eddy

Image: NASA Earth Observatory

On June 13, 2018, the National Weather Service reported a small but well-defined eddy off the coast near the border of Orange County and San Diego County. An eddy is a counter-clockwise circulation pattern of fog and clouds. The Catalina eddy typically brings cool moist air to the coast. A similar eddy was also reported in 2013 (pictured) by the NASA Earth Observatory.

Why do the clouds take on a whirlpool shape? What causes the Catalina eddy and when does it typically appear?


NASA Earth Observatory: Catalina eddy

San Diego Union Tribune: The beauty of a Catalina eddy

Times of San Diego: Catalina eddy phenomenon spotted off San Diego coast

NGSS & Grade

MS-ESS2-6, ESS2.D: Weather and Climate

Hot air balloons in Temecula float in the sky

Image: Jason Mizerek, Fleet Science Center


Use hot air balloons, like those found in Temecula, to explore weather patterns and properties of air. 


HowStuffWorks: How Hot Air Balloons Work 

Planet-Science: Make a teabag fly

Sciencing: Why does hot air rise and cold air sink?

NGSS & Grade:

5-PS1-1, PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter

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

Scuba divers can breathe under water

Image: PADI

The La Jolla coast is a popular scuba diving destination. How can a scuba tank carry enough air for a diver for such a long period of time? What are the properties of the air in the tank? 


Carolina: Scuba Diving and Gas Laws

NGSS & Grade:

MS-PS1-4, PS1.A: Structure and Properties of Matter

Thousands of leopard sharks gather off the coast of La Jolla

Image: Andy Nosel

Every year, starting in June, thousands of leopard sharks gather off the coast of La Jolla near the Marine Room restaurant. 

Why is this one spot so special? According to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 97 percent of the sharks are pregnant females.  


KPBS, NPR: Increasing number of Leopard Sharks off La Jolla attracting snorkelers, scientists

NGSS & Grade

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

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

San Diego County has seasonal 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