Downloading Earthquake Data from the USGS Earthquake Hazards Site for Anywhere in the World and Studying it Using ArcGIS

Barbara and David Tewksbury
Hamilton College
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Initial Publication Date: July 9, 2008 | Reviewed: October 19, 2012


Students download earthquake data from the USGS Earthquake Hazards website and plot and anlyze the earthquakes using ArcMap and ArcScene.

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This exercise is part of an introductory geology course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students must have basic ArcGIS skills and be able to create an ArcMap, manipulate layers in ArcMap, work with attribute tables, and do simple tasks in ArcScene.

How the activity is situated in the course

This exercise takes place about a month into the course.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students will consolidate concepts related to earthquake epicenters, foci, and magnitudes and explore subduction-related earthquakes and the geometry of a Benioff zone.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students will analyze the distribution of earthquakes.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students will practice GIS skills learned in previous assignments.

Description of the activity/assignment

The USGS Earthquake Hazards Program web site allows you to download earthquake data as an Excel spreadsheet from any area in the world over a specific time period and magnitude range. This is a fantastic resource that makes it possible to study any area you want and not be limited to canned data sets. It's also very easy to save the Excel files in a way that can be imported directly into ArcMap and then into ArcScene.

In this in-class activity, students download earthquake data from the Sumatra area and examine it first in Excel. They quickly observe that, even when they sort the spreadsheet in various ways, they can develop only a limited picture of the data. In the second part of the activity, students bring the data into ArcMap to portray it spatially, and they change the symbols to portray various attributes of the earthquakes. In the final part of the activity, students display the data in three dimensions in ArcScene. This latter is particularly powerful, because students can interactively rotate the ArcScene, which helps immensely in their abilities to visualize the depth distribution of quakes.

Although the activity focuses on Sumatra, the activity could easily be done for any area of the world. Later in the semester in this course, students download earthquake data from other areas in the world when they evaluate earthquake hazards in other regions.

You can also download a GIS Primer (Acrobat (PDF) 1.2MB Mar30 10) that we have written, which is a simple GIS "how-to" manual for tasks including those used in this exercise.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students will be evaluated on the quality and insight of their written responses to two open-ended questions the accompany the activity.

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