5 Ways to Teach About Heat Waves

Elizabeth Wade

Oct 9, 2021

After another sweltering summer this year, it’s no wonder that it essentially tied with the 1936 Dust Bowl Summer as the hottest on record for the contiguous United States. Additionally, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the surface temperature of the Earth in 2020 was 1.76° F warmer than the twentieth-century average of 57.0°F and 2.14˚F warmer than the pre-industrial average. The warming trend has been consistent over the last 40 years, with each new decade being warmer than the last. In addition to the increasing global average temperature, heat waves have also become more severe, prolonged, and frequent in recent years, as indicated in this article about the Western United States. One reason we should be worried about these trends is that heat waves typically cause more deaths each year than any other type of natural disaster, and they can make droughts and wildfires more severe. 


So, how can you incorporate this important climate-related topic into your lessons? Here are some suggestions:



1. Inquire, Investigate, Inspire 

Grade Levels: 6-8
Subjects: Science, Social Studies, Geography, and ELA

This lesson plan provides you with a slide presentation, activity, worksheet, video, book chapter, and article to teach your students about the very real dangers of extreme heat and humidity. The lesson incorporates a number of learning styles and includes competencies in data analysis, critical thinking, and social/emotional learning. 


Integrate this lesson plan into your science, social studies, geography, or ELA class and let your students learn more about extreme heat and humidity, interpret climate data, learn about geographic regions most at risk, and read about and reflect on what life could be like in the future if we don’t act to limit global warming.     


An up-close photograph of a box fan, with a bed, a nightstand, and a door all visible in soft focus on the background.

Why Wet-Bulb Temperature is Terrifying



2. Extra, Extra, Read All About It

Grade Levels: 6-12
Subjects: Science, Biology, Earth Science 

Warmer temperatures and heat waves aren’t just affecting people; they are affecting other species and habitats, too. This recent article describes the self-perpetuating feedback loop caused by global warming, leading to more wildfires, more greenhouse-gas pollution from those fires, less carbon removal and sequestration by the trees, and more warming.  Forests regulate our water cycle, clean the air, stabilize soils, reduce excess nutrient runoff, sequester and store carbon, and provide habitat to the vast majority of species on land, so, this increase in wildfires is a major concern. 


This article is great because it’s full of recent data, graphs, and additional links to more information. It could easily be integrated into science, biology, Earth science, and environmental science classes and could be used as a data source for math classes. English language arts classes could also use this article to fulfill reading standards for “Informational Text” or “Science and Technical Subjects”.


Need an entire lesson on the subject? This lesson plan lets students graph and analyze data, complete a worksheet, and watch a video about the effects of increasing temperatures on pine beetles and wildfires in Colorado.    


A fire fills up most of the frame, with a group of people silhouetted against it at the bottom of the photograph.

6 Graphics Explain the Climate Feedback Loop Fueling U.S. Fires



3. 3-D Exploration 

Grade Levels: 4-12
Subjects: Geography, Science, Biology

Take your students on a virtual trip to Tokyo, the site of the 2021 Summer Olympics, to investigate the connection between urbanization and heat waves. As you may have seen, it was very hot and humid in Tokyo during the 2021 Olympics, which made it difficult for some of the athletes to compete in outdoor events. According to the resource, the average temperature in Tokyo has increased three times more than in the rest of the country!


This interactive resource lets students explore 3-D maps, images, text, and data about the urban heat island effect in Tokyo. Students will study some of the reasons for the increasing urban temperatures and discover solutions being implemented in the city. This resource would be a perfect fit for geography, science, and biology classes and includes data analysis, critical thinking, and technology competencies.


The Tokyo skyline at night.
Google Earth Timelapse - Tokyo’s Heat-Island Effect 



4. Deep Dive Into Data

Grade Levels: 6-12
Subjects: Science, Biology, Social Studies, Civics, Geography, History, Economics

Want to help your students investigate the connections between urban heat, demographics, and tree cover? This interactive map tool allows students to explore demographic variables, average temperatures, percent tree cover, and health index scores for six major urban areas in the United States. 


This resource covers topics such as environmental justice, urban planning, and human health. If you want data to support the benefits of planting trees, this is it! Want to teach an entire lesson on the subject? Check out this lesson plan, which adds a Google Slides presentation, videos, and a reflection assignment.


A deciduous tree with green leaves. The photograph was shot from below the tree, so that the leaves and branches fill up the whole frame. The sun is shining through the leaves.

Tree Equity Score



5. Watch and Discuss

Grade Levels: 6-12
Subjects: Science, Earth Science, Biology

This 6-minute video shows students how ocean heat waves can impact our oceans and coral reefs through the process of coral bleaching. Coral reefs support about one quarter of all life in the oceans, so these heat-induced bleaching events can have devastating effects on ocean ecosystems all over the world. 


The video is an easy addition to any Earth science, biology, or environmental science class. You could also incorporate it into a geography or social studies class, as many human communities rely on coral reefs for food, income, or protection from strong waves and storm surges.  There are a number of other resources about this topic for other grades and subjects on our website, so take a look to see if there’s something else that works for your class!  


Changing Planet: Fading Corals


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As you navigate another school year, these resources can help you integrate the topics of heat waves and climate change into your lessons, either virtually or in the classroom. Make learning about wet-bulb temperatures, environmental justice, wildfires, urban planning, or coral bleaching an engaging, interactive, and emotional experience. 


Looking for videos, worksheets, lesson plans, articles, or interactive content on other topics related to climate change? Check out our website and bring more scientist-reviewed and teacher-approved climate change content into your classroom today!

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