Undergraduate Research > 2014 Workshop > Activities > Explore natural hazards in seismically active regions using geodetic, earthquake, and societal data.

Explore natural hazards in seismically active regions using geodetic, earthquake, and societal data.

Shelley Olds, UNAVCO; Christine Puskas, UNAVCO
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This page first made public: Aug 11, 2014


Students conduct a regional seismic hazard analysis of a region of the United States of their choosing*. Using on-line data, they bring together and investigate the interaction of multiple types of data [ground motion (measured by GPS from UNAVCO), historical earthquake data and fault data] to associate rates of deformation and earthquake activity with hazard potential. Students would develop an assessment of seismic hazard potential. This project also introduces the idea of fault loading and qualitative earthquake interaction.



This research project was developed for introductory-level geoscience students in 100 - 200 level geology, Earth science, natural hazards courses.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Since this research project is intended for intro level students, content knowledge is expected: basic plate tectonics, how an earthquake is created, that earthquakes happen at different depths, and basic fault types. Some prior experience with process of science (scientific practices) would be helpful. Experience with Google Earth or similar mapping tools is not required, although helpful. Mapping skills would be helpful.

Other content useful knowledge:

What are the 4 basic classes of faults?
Do faults break all at once, or in many short segments?
How is stress stored between tectonic plates?
What happens when the crust is stretched?

How the activity is situated in the course

This could be a summative project after students have learned about plate tectonics, faulting, and/or volcanoes. Or it could be completed in stages as students learn the concepts and data types throughout the course. Three class meetings are suggested, ideally during lab time - one to discuss the project and provide time for data exploration and collection; one to provide team time to work on and discuss the projects; one for presentations and group discussions. Students would be expected to do some of the project work (data exploration, analysis, report writing, etc.) outside of class.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

At the end of this project, each student should be able to:

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Other skills goals for this activity

Description and Teaching Materials

For this research project, teams of students conduct a basic research investigation to determine the seismic (earthquake) hazard potential of a region along the western United States. For the student team's region, they will look at the

Students will work in teams of 2 to 4. Each team will research a different region so that the class can compare results of the different regions. Students choose a region that they are interested in, have vacationed, have wanted to visit, etc. Before finalizing their choice, students need to ensure that they have the different types of data for the region.

Introduction to the project

Students often learn the basics on how an earthquake is created, the different types of fault movement, and general information about tectonic plates and their movement. They might have learned that the land deforms and used high-precision GPS data to study plate motion and tectonic deformation. (see UNAVCO Educational Resources for classroom activities). During their study of earthquakes, they might have been exposed to the concept that earthquakes are more than a point but an area of movement along a fault - a length of the fault and a depth. Students often ask, if a portion of a fault slips, how does this impact the rest of the fault? Does this make another portion of the fault more susceptible to an earthquake?

This project provides students the opportunity to explore this question further. By investigating the relationship between tectonic deformation, plate motion, faults, earthquakes, and population data, students choose a seismically active region with a fault (or faults) to investigate the seismic risk of their region of study.

Defining a region
Students can choose segment of a known fault like the San Andreas, or they could look at a GPS/strain rate map and look for a sudden change of GPS velocities in a place that interests them, or they could look at an earthquake map, or the USGS fault map, or at a recent/historic earthquake in the news. Looking at the fault database can help with determining the region based on fault segments. Possible faults/fault zones/seismic zones include:

In California, regions make more sense if they are shaped the width of the state, and include about 50 km of the San Andreas fault. If students are interested in southern California, they should consider including a segment of the San Jacinto fault. Near San Francisco region, the Hayward fault should be included. In northern California, the triple junction would be included.

In Nevada/Utah/Colorado , to get the best tectonic deformation picture, students would choose a region that extends from east (western Colorado) to west (eastern California).

In Oregon and Washington , again, regions that are shaped to include a portion of the subduction zone and the width of the state. Note, there are volcanoes; GPS stations very near the volcano will show tectonic and volcanic movement. (Which could be a different but interesting exploration for a student)

Checking the region for data
Students perform online searches to determine basic seismicity (earthquake data) and deformation (using GPS) to choose a region that has earthquakes and shows some movement (as seen with the GPS vectors on a map) - and to check that there is data. Useful tools for this:

Making a forecast (not a prediction)
Based on the earthquake and GPS data for the region, students make a forecast as to overall hazard of the region and what areas within the region would have higher hazards than others.

Assembling the data
Students can use hand-drawn maps, Google Earth, and/or ESRI Arc-GIS online (its free up to 1000 points of data per data type) to pull the data together onto a single map. Encouraging students to use layers so that they can compare and contrast patterns between two different types of data at a time will allow them to build their story. To lessen cognitive load (to avoid overload), suggest to students to look at one then two types of data at a time, make observations, take notes of the patterns and trends, ask questions,interpret the data, develop potential conclusions, etc. Then add in the one set of data at a time.

Students should compile what data they can find:

Primary Resources:
Some on-line data resources include:

Current tectonic movement and deformation using GPS data:

Earthquake history (size, location, depth):

Location and orientation of faults:
General maps
Supporting resources

Analyzing and interpreting the data

For your region of study, create a description of the seismic hazard potential then discuss the potential impact on the people who live in the region.

The student report should include the following:
M = a + b*log10(MD)
M=moment magnitude
MD=maximum displacement

antilog[(M-a)/b] = MD

M = a + b*log10(SRL)
SRL=surface rupture length (km)
M=moment magnitude

Teaching Notes and Tips

Locations for projects

Working in Teams

Common difficulties (with potential solutions) encountered by students during similar projects (From Linda Reinen's Watershed Analysis


Students turn in a report / presentation with conclusions of seismic hazards analysis for their region. The instructor could grade or use this as an opportunity for peer-grading (rubric to assess completeness, critical thinking skills, etc to be created).

Student teams give oral presentations to teach the class about their region.

After the student teams present, a post-presentation class discussion to compare and contrast the results from the different regions is an important synthesis step. Taking time to discuss the steps they went through to perform the research helps with meta-cognitive retention of the process.

You can also devise exam questions based on the project results. E.g., a brief discussion of regional variations in regional tectonics.

References and Resources

This assignment was originally developed by Shelley Olds (UNAVCO) as a guided activity; Shelley Olds and Christine Puskas modified it for use in introductory-level undergraduate classes.

Next Generation Science Standards, Appendix G – Crosscutting Concepts (pdf)
Watershed Analysis

Resources for students are embedded in the Description and Teaching Materials section.

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