Assessment of active tectonic behavior in a continental region using Google Earth

Gareth Funning
University of California, Riverside
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Initial Publication Date: July 18, 2012 | Reviewed: November 3, 2013


Students assess, through use of free online data and tools, evidence for tectonic activity in the landscape of a selected continental area (not a local area). The project is assessed by consideration of a written report, online dataset and an oral presentation.

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This is used in an upper division undergraduate geology/geophysics majors course ('Active Tectonics and Remote Sensing').

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Manipulation of satellite imagery and digital topography, using Google Earth and (preferably) other image visualization tools (e.g. ERMapper). Knowledge of basic tectonic geomorphology (i.e. the landforms expected around active faults). Understanding of the interpretation of seismicity patterns, focal mechanisms and regional geodetic velocity fields. These skills/concepts are taught during the first half of the course.

How the activity is situated in the course

It is a culminating project, worked on through the second half of the course.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Assessment of the active tectonic behavior of a chosen region through identification of diagnostic geomorphic features in the landscape and use of other relevant geophysical or geological data. Developing awareness in students of parts of the world which are not California.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Synthesis of multiple strands of evidence/hypothesis testing, critical evaluation of online resources.

Other skills goals for this activity

Creation of KMZ datasets, writing, preparation and delivery of presentations, searching for relevant literature and online resources.

Description of the activity/assignment

The project is designed to allow students the opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills learned during the 'Active Tectonics and Remote Sensing' course. Over the first half of the course, students learn about remote sensing approaches, digital topography, seismicity patterns and geodesy, plus how these can capture various features of the tectonics of an active area. In the project, which runs during the second half of the course, students are asked to bring all available data (available online or in the literature) to bear on a selected continental area, to identify evidence for the tectonic activity that occurs there. Students are asked to highlight this evidence in a Google Earth dataset, which could include image overlays, annotations and markers, to indicate particular features of interest. Examples of highlighted features could include geomorphic features such as deflected or offset drainages, faceted mountain fronts or incised canyons, or linear trends seen in topography, seismicity or vegetation abundance.

The project is assessed via a written report and class presentation, which must refer to the Google Earth dataset. Students are instructed to choose an area located somewhere other than California, to broaden their horizons/address an otherwise California-centric world view.

Keywords: Google Earth, geomorphology, active tectonics

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students are assessed under the following criteria:

Background information: Does the student demonstrate an understanding of the regional tectonics of the area chosen? Are the information sources correctly and fully cited? Where there are controversies in the literature, do the references cited span the range of published studies, or is only a single viewpoint represented?

Analysis: Does the student distinguish observations and interpretations? Are the features chosen and annotated within Google Earth convincing? Do they represent what they are claimed to represent/does the student make a good case? Does the student demonstrate understanding of tectonic processes? Does the student use terminology correctly?

Synthesis: Is the regional tectonic style successfully linked to the features seen in the chosen area? Are other supporting information sources (e.g. online fault maps, earthquake locations, other imagery datasets) used to strengthen the interpretations?

Report considerations: Is the report structured logically? Are the figures successful in illustrating the features the student considers most important? Does the report refer to the annotation dataset in a manner that effectively communicates the students thought process?

Presentation considerations: As for the report, with these additional questions: Does the student speak clearly, without reading from a pre-prepared script? Is he/she able to answer follow-up questions on the material?

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