Google Earth Tectonic Landforms

Kyle Fredrick, California University of Pennsylvania
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Initial Publication Date: June 11, 2014 | Reviewed: June 24, 2014


This activity from a Geomorphology course is designed to familiiarize students with using Google Earth, as well as making the connection between features they see in a map or satellite view vs. what they might see from ground level. Students will use this exercise as the first of several where they will evaluate landforms and the materials and processes responsible for their development.

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This exercise is from an upper-level Geomorphology course that is primarily directed toward sophomores and juniors. The only pre-requisite is Introduction to Geology, though most students will have had at least Hydrology and Historical Geology, as well as one or two other electives (Soils, Earth Resources, Natural Hazards) by the time they take Geomorphology.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should have mastered the recognition of active tectonic boundaries through map and satellite interpretation. They should be familiar with cross-sections and topographic profiles. They should also understand the associated stresses that are attached to tectonic boundaries. We would have initiated the class with discussion of lineaments and observations of preferred orientations.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is an exercise placed early in the semester. It is completed after the first week but certainly by the third week of our normal 15-week sequence. It lays the foundation for later exercises in which we use Google Earth at finer scales to evaluate smaller geomorphic features such as floodplain elements, landslides, etc.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Tectonic Stress response expressions
Deformation mechanisms
Orogenic processes
Topographic trends/lineaments

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Analyzing landforms through spatial reasoning(map view, cross-section, 3-D view)
Developing multi-dimensional models
Integrating Stress/Strain relationships with landform development

Other skills goals for this activity

Basic geographic relationships
Creating topographic profiles and cross-sections
Computation proficiency (Google Earth)

Description and Teaching Materials

This exercise is the first in a series of Google Earth exercises that we use in Geomorphology at our institution. The class is usually large (approximately 40), making field trips difficult. Additionally, our immediate region is characterized by incised valleys in mostly horizontal strata. In order to get students thinking globally, and extending their geologic curiosity outside of the boundaries of Pennsylvania, this exercise forces them to evaluate landforms in many different areas.
Students use Google Earth and prescribed placemarkers to travel around the world. At these placemarkers, they are required to move about the location and customize a profile and use the surface features to create a "cartoonish" cross-section. Students often struggle with this assignment, but in a good way. They grow their spatial reasoning skills appreciably over the course of the semester, starting with this exercise. Some students have demonstrated a knack for this, while others have exhibited exceptional creativity and artistic abilities in their final products.
It is easiest to have students do this on paper, but I've shown an example or two in Power Point. A few students tried to replicate my example with beautiful and impressive results.
PDF Student Handout for Google Earth Tectonic Lab (Acrobat (PDF) 181kB Jun11 14)
Sites to Visit for Google Earth Tectonics Lab (KMZ File 2kB Jun11 14)
Word Student Handout for Google Earth Tectonic Lab (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Jun11 14)
Example Solutions for Google Earth Tectonics Lab (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 1.4MB Jun11 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

There are few limits to how to implement this exercise. I've used the same strategy (topographic profiles) in Google Earth to evaluate features related to subsequent topics in Geomorphology (Volcanoes, Fluvial Systems, Mass Wasting events, etc.). It has proven effective and students are much more apt to use the program efficiently as we move further into the semester.
Each instructor has different features they want students to use and see. I chose places that popped into my head as I was considering tectonically active regions. Others would have different sites.


Because this is the first in a series, I typically grade this exercise generously. The grade is based on a 30-point scale, two points are just for completing the assignment. Each of the seven profiles are worth four points. One point is for including a recognizable map view, two points are for including a recognizable and accurate topographic profile, and one point is for reasonable annotations of their cross-section.

References and Resources