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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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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

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


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

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 in Mission Bay

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

Marine fossils found near Normal Heights

Image: San Diego Natural History Museum

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

What questions do you have about this discovery? For example:

  • How did remains of marine life end up on dry land?
  • What does this finding tell us about this area over thousands or millions of years?
  • What can this evidence tell us about Earth's processes over time?


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