You Can Die Here
Lesson Activities

INTRODUCTORY ACTIVITY

1) Introduce students to Death Valley by explaining that it is located to the east of the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of central California. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking students to share what they already know about Death Valley how the characteristics of the landscape effect the climatic conditions of the area. Display this Google Map (OR from the satellite view on http://maps.google.com, search for “Death Valley, CA” and zoom out until the Sierra Nevada Mountains are visible on the left side of the screen). Be sure to explain that it is 282 feet below sea level–the lowest, hottest, and driest place in the United States.

2) Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to describe the climate, weather conditions, and landscape portrayed in the clip. Play Clip 1, “You Can Die Here” (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page). Lead students in a discussion of the climate, weather conditions and landscape (Possible answers: This is the hottest and driest place in the western hemisphere; there are large salt flats, vast deserts, and deep craters.)

LEARNING ACTIVITY ONE

1) Distribute the “Precipitation Student Organizer” (PDF)(RTF) to each student. Open and display this Google Map (OR from the satellite view on http://maps.google.com, search for “Orange Cove, CA” and zoom in & out in order to be able to see the surrounding landscape). Point out the central valley of California, the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, and the Basin and Range region in nearby Nevada. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to describe the landscape conditions of each area as seen on the Google map. Be sure to point out the differences between the landscapes on either side of the mountain (see Teacher Key (PDF)(RTF)for answers).

2) Zoom into and browse around the Orange Cove area on your Google map until you can see the existence of orchards. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to a) describe the type of human activity going on here, and b) describe the surrounding landscape. (Section 1 on the “Precipitation Student Organizer.”) Lead a discussion with the students about their answers and ask them to share how they reached their conclusions (see teacher key for answers).

3) Open and display this Google map. (OR from the satellite view on http://maps.google.com, search for “Badger, CA” and zoom in and navigate west in order to be able to see the surrounding landscape). Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to describe the vegetation covering these mountains. What does the presence of this vegetation suggest about the amount of rainfall here? (Section 2 on the “Precipitation Student Organizer.”) Lead a discussion with the students about their answers (see teacher key for answers).

4) Using the same map used in Step 3, scroll further east over the top of the Sierras into the arid basins east of the mountains, and zoom in slightly on the landscape. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them how the vegetation here compares to the vegetation at the foothills of the Sierras? What does the landscape suggest about the rainfall (Section 3 on the “Precipitation Student Organizer”)? Lead a discussion with the students about their answers (see teacher key for answers).

5) Project the following two maps:

Relief map of California

California’s Average Annual Precipitation

Optionally, also distribute color copies of each map to the students. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to compare the areas of high and low precipitation with the areas of high and low elevation and fill in Section 4 on the “Precipitation Student Organizer.” Lead a discussion with the students about their answers. Be sure to point out the increase in precipitation that corresponds to an increase in altitude.

6) Project the planetary winds diagram on page 14 of the ESRT. Tell students that the contiguous United States is located between 30 and 45 degrees north latitude. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to determine which way the wind moves at that latitude and to write their answers in Section 5 of the “Precipitation Student Organizer.” Lead students in a discussion about their answers (see teacher key for answers).


LEARNING ACTIVITY TWO

1) Display the “Formation of Rainshadow Deserts Student Organizer” (PDF)(RTF) on an overhead projector. Distribute copies of the organizer to the students. Point out the different areas of the diagram and provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to describe the types of landscapes found in each area as previously discussed. Tell students that the main movement and direction of wind over the United States is from west to east, and that these are called prevailing winds. The winds that approach the Sierra Nevada Mountains are called the prevailing southwesterlies due to the fact that they are traveling from the south west. Draw a few arrows indicating wind direction and label the “Prevailing Southwesterlies” on the “Formation of the Rainshadow Desert Student Organizer.” Ask students to duplicate your drawing on their worksheets. Ask students if anyone can define windward (facing into the wind) and leeward (eastern facing slopes). Label area B on the diagram, windward (see figure 1). Label area D on the diagram: leeward (see figure 1).

2) Ask students to speculate what happens to air near the surface of the earth as it is encounters the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Be sure to discuss how it rises up over the windward side of the mountains and sinks back down on the leeward side. Ask students to add a few arrows to indicate the movement of air their worksheet (Figure 2).

3) Ask students to think about and discuss the nature of the air mass at point A, particularly with respect to temperature and moisture content, as it comes from over the Pacific Ocean. Explain how this maritime tropical air mass is warm and moist due to the fact that it is coming from the subtropics and travels a long distance over the water. Ask students to write “warm moist air” next to point A on the diagram (Figure 3).

4) Ask students to predict what topographical features might influence cloud formation. Discuss these predictions. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them over what topographic features do the clouds form, and where do they seem to dissipate? (Section 6 on the “Precipitation Student Organizer.”) Play video clip 2, “Clouds & Currents” (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page). Explain how storm clouds from the south west are formed over the mountain peaks due to the warm air that cools and expands as it rises over the mountain. This cooling and expanding causes the condensation of water vapor in the air. Ask the students to draw a rain cloud in area C on their diagram (Figure 4). Lead a discussion with the students about their answers in Section 6 of the student organizer, making sure to incorporate the definition of a rainshadow (the dry area on the leeward side of a mountain).

5) Explain to the students that the condensation that occurs over the mountain peak releases latent heat (energy stored in the water vapor) at evaporation. This releases measurable, sensible heat back into the environment, keeping the rising air warmer than dry air that has risen to the same altitude. This process adds to the warming effect on the leeward side of the mountains. The air then continues down the leeward side of the mountain. The pressure increases as the air descends and results in further warming. The end result is the extremely hot, dry air found in Death Valley. Ask students to add the label “Hot Dry Air” to their diagram (figure 5).

6) Below the rainshadow desert diagram, there are five statements referencing the different areas in the diagram. Ask the students to match the appropriate description with its corresponding area (area A, area B, area C, area D or Death Valley) as it appears on the bottom of their rainshadow desert diagram. Lead students in a discussion about their answers (see Teacher Key (PDF)(RTF)for answers).

7) Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to describe the conditions in Death Valley, especially in terms of moisture evaporation rates and temperature and record their answers on Section 7 of the “Precipitation Student Organizer.” Play video clip 3: “Runnin’ with the Devil” (Access the video segments for this lesson at the Video Segments Page). Lead students in a discussion about their answers (see teacher key for answers). Ask the students if they’d like to visit Death Valley and why .

CULMINATING ACTIVITY

Group 3-4 students per computer with broadband internet access. Look back at the planetary winds diagram and ask students to predict what areas of the world other deserts will be found (along the 30 degree north and 30 degree south latitude lines). Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to use the following Web sites to research other examples of deserts across the globe and record their characteristics on their “Global Deserts Student Organizer” (PDF)(RTF).

Missouri Botanical Gardens: Desert Topics

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS): Geologic Information


CROSS-CURRICULAR EXTENSIONS

Geography

Using the USGS website listed in the Culminating Activity, guide students to the information pertaining to desertification. Lead a discussion with the students about the dangers of desertification (the “degradation of formerly productive land”) and some potential remedies.

Physical Science/Chemistry

Using a CO2 fire extinguisher, demonstrate the cooling that occurs when gas expands. Explain to students that the CO2 inside the fire extinguisher is under great pressure. Ask students to predict what they think will happen to CO2 gas as it exits the container. Spray a piece of fabric with the fire extinguisher. The escaping CO2 will solidify and form icey residue on the material demonstrating the cooling that occurs as the escaping gas expands.

History/Global Culture

Have students research how different cultures have adapted to life in deserts. Possible subjects could include nomadic Bedouins and southwestern Native Americans..

COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS

Ask students to research and report on the meteorological conditions of their local area, and how they are affected by geographical features.

Invite a local nursery to make a classroom presentation about the needs of desert-habitat plants. Ask any students who have such plants at home to bring them in to share with the class.

Invite a local pet store to make a classroom presentation about the needs of desert-habitat animals. Ask any students who have such pets at home to bring them in to share with the class.

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