Observing Streams & Rivers in Google Earth

Jennifer Piatek
Central Connecticut State University
Author Profile
Initial Publication Date: June 29, 2010 | Reviewed: June 8, 2013


Students are asked to observe fluvial features on both Earth and Mars in satellite images via Google Earth (as well as online panoramas) and explore processes of erosion and deposition and the relationship of drainage pattern to underlying geology and tectonic history.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



An undergraduate introductory physical geology course (majors and non-majors): also may be appropriate for an introductory planetary geology/astronomy course

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be familiar with drainage patterns and processes of erosion/deposition within a river system. No previous experience with planetary geology is necessary: this exercise might be a good introduction to the geology of Mars.

Experience with Google Earth is helpful but not necessary.

How the activity is situated in the course

This exercise was given as a homework assignment, but could also be used as a lab assignment (2-3 hours).


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Drainage patterns: dendritic, radial, structurally-controlled
Erosional and depositional processes/features (point bars, cutbanks, deltas)
Development of flood plains and river terraces
Formation of cutoff meanders and oxbow lakes
Fluvial features on Mars

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Interpretation of satellite images
Reproducing images as annotated sketches
Reconstructing past tectonic history based on observation of current features
Applying concepts from terrestrial river systems to make conclusions about Martian geologic history

Other skills goals for this activity

Utilizing Google Earth to view satellite images

Description of the activity/assignment

To complete this assigment, students observe terrestrial and Martian fluvial systems in Google Earth imagery and related high-resolution panoramas (GigaPans). The related questions ask students to observe river systems, describe the processes of erosion and deposition present, and interpret the underlying geologic history based on current features.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Student work is assessed based on answers to given assignment questions, which include recall of concepts (type of drainage pattern), creation of labeled/annotated sketches, and explanations for observed morphologies.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials