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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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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: Jason Mizerek, 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

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