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ash     (in geology) Small, lightweight fragments of rock and glass spewed by volcanic eruptions.

asthma     A disease affecting the body’s airways, which are the tubes through which animals breathe. Asthma obstructs these airways through swelling, the production of too much mucus or a tightening of the tubes. As a result, the body can expand to breathe in air, but loses the ability to exhale appropriately. The most common cause of asthma is an allergy. Asthma is a leading cause of hospitalization and the top chronic disease responsible for kids missing school.

atmosphere     The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.

carbon     The chemical element having the atomic number 6. It is the physical basis of all life on Earth. Carbon exists freely as graphite and diamond. It is an important part of coal, limestone and petroleum, and is capable of self-bonding, chemically, to form an enormous number of chemically, biologically and commercially important molecules.

carbon dioxide     (or CO2) A colorless, odorless gas produced by all animals when the oxygen they inhale reacts with the carbon-rich foods that they’ve eaten. Carbon dioxide also is released when organic matter burns (including fossil fuels like oil or gas). Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen during photosynthesis, the process they use to make their own food.

cloud     A plume of molecules or particles, such as water droplets, that move under the action of an outside force, such as wind, radiation or water currents. (in atmospheric science) A mass of airborne water droplets and ice crystals that travel as a plume, usually high in Earth’s atmosphere. Its movement is driven by winds. 

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

drone     A remote-controlled, pilotless aircraft or missile.

dynamic     An adjective that signifies something is active, changing or moving. (noun) The change or range of variability seen or measured within something.

earthquake     A sudden and sometimes violent shaking of the ground, sometimes causing great destruction, as a result of movements within Earth’s crust or of volcanic action.

elevation     The height or altitude at which something exists.

eruption     (in geoscience) The sudden bursting or spraying of hot material from deep inside a planet or moon and out through its surface. Volcanic eruptions on Earth usually send hot lava, hot gases or ash into the air and across surrounding land. In colder parts of the solar system, eruptions often involve liquid water spraying out through cracks in an icy crust. This happens on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that is covered in ice.

fire     The burning of some fuel, creating a flame that releases light and heat.

fog     A thick cloud of water droplets that touches the ground.

geological     Adjective to describe things related to Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. People who work in this field are known as geologists.

lava     Molten rock that comes up from the mantle, through Earth’s crust, and out of a volcano.

magma     The molten rock that resides under Earth’s crust. When it erupts from a volcano, this material is referred to as lava.

magnitude     (in geology) A number used to describe the relative size of an earthquake. It runs from 1 to more than 8 and is calculated by the peak ground motion as recorded by seismographs. There are several magnitude scales. One of the more commonly used ones today is known as the moment magnitude. It’s based on the size of a fault (crack in Earth’s crust), how much the fault slips (moves) during a quake, and the energy force that was required to permit that movement. For each increase in magnitude, an earthquake produces 10 times more ground motion and releases about 32 times more energy. For perspective, a magnitude 8 quake can release energy equivalent to detonating 6 million tons of TNT.

molten     A word describing something that is melted, such as the liquid rock that makes up lava.

monitor     To test, sample or watch something, especially on a regular or ongoing basis.

phenomena     Events or developments that are surprising or unusual.

precursor     A substance from which some later thing is made. It may be a compound that will change into something else as a result of some chemical or biological reaction.

radar     A system for calculating the position, distance or other important characteristic of a distant object. It works by sending out periodic radio waves that bounce off of the object and then measuring how long it takes that bounced signal to return. Radar can detect moving objects, like airplanes. It also can be used to map the shape of land — even land covered by ice.

remote sensing     Collecting data about an object or area from a distance, such as by using satellite cameras to take images of Earth.

resident     Some member of a community of organisms that lives in a particular place. (Antonym: visitor)

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)

satellite     A moon orbiting a planet or a vehicle or other manufactured object that orbits some celestial body in space.

seismicity     The frequency and duration of earthquakes in an area. High seismicity means that there have been more earthquakes than usual in a region.

slope     (in mathematics) The degree to which some line rises or falls from a strictly horizontal direction. A line that appears to rise as it moves to the right has a positive slope. One that appears to fall as runs to the right has a negative slope. Vertical lines have neither. Their slope is described as undefined.

suffocate     To be unable to breathe, or to cause a person or other organism to be unable to breathe.

sulfur     A chemical element with an atomic number of sixteen. Sulfur, one of the most common elements in the universe, is an essential element for life. Because sulfur and its compounds can store a lot of energy, it is present in fertilizers and many industrial chemicals.

sulfur dioxide     A compound made of sulfur and oxygen. It is one of the pollutants that can form when a fossil fuel is burned. It’s also a gas naturally emitted during volcanic eruptions. Its scientific symbol is SO2 .

sulfuric acid     A strong acid having the chemical formula H 2 SO 4 . Used as a drain cleaner and in lead-acid car batteries, the liquid is able to burn tissues and eat through metals and even rock.

survey     (v.) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.

synthetic     An adjective that describes something that did not arise naturally, but was instead created by people. Many synthetic materials have been developed to stand in for natural materials, such as synthetic rubber, synthetic diamond or a synthetic hormone. Some may even have a chemical makeup and structure identical to the original.

thermal     Of or relating to heat. (in meteorology) A relatively small-scale, rising air current produced when Earth’s surface is heated. Thermals are a common source of low level turbulence for aircraft.

threatened     (in conservation biology) A designation given to species that are at high risk of going extinct. These species are not as imperiled however, as those considered “endangered.”

tool     An object that a person or other animal makes or obtains and then uses to carry out some purpose such as reaching food, defending itself or grooming.

toxic     Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.

U.S. Geological Survey     (or USGS) This is the largest nonmilitary U.S. agency charged with mapping water, Earth and biological resources. It collects information to help monitor the health of ecosystems, natural resources and natural hazards. It also studies the impacts of climate and land-use changes. A part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, USGS is headquartered in Reston, Va.

volcano     A place on Earth’s crust that opens, allowing magma and gases to spew out from underground reservoirs of molten material. The magma rises through a system of pipes or channels, sometimes spending time in chambers where it bubbles with gas and undergoes chemical transformations. This plumbing system can become more complex over time. This can result in a change, over time, to the chemical composition of the lava as well. The surface around a volcano’s opening can grow into a mound or cone shape as successive eruptions send more lava onto the surface, where it cools into hard rock.

wane     To diminish gradually in size or intensity

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