Exploring fold and thrust belts in Google Earth

Jack Loveless, Smith College

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Initial Publication Date: June 1, 2012 | Reviewed: January 19, 2015


Google Earth enhances traditional geologic maps by allowing the viewer to explore three-dimensional map patterns and the interaction between structure and topography in dictating those map patterns. This activity overlays 4, 7.5' USGS quadrangles on Google Earth terrain and imagery data and encourages students to investigate common features of fold-and-thrust belts.

Keywords: Google Earth, fold-and-thrust belt, visualization

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Required undergraduate course in structural geology.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Basic Google Earth navigation, introduction to describing structures in three dimensions, some familiarity with features of fold-and-thrust belts

How the activity is situated in the course

Stand-alone lab exercise


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Three-dimensional geometry of fold-and-thrust belts, fault map patterns, fold map patterns

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Interaction between structural geology and geomorphology, developing hypotheses about how structures can dictate topographic patterns

Other skills goals for this activity

Description and Teaching Materials

This activity permits students to examine three-dimensional map patterns in a fold-and-thrust belt, comparing geologic map patterns to topography. The perspective view capabilities of Google Earth provide insight into the third dimension, which is possible only along already drawn cross-section lines in a traditional examination of geologic maps.

This activity could be used to complement lectures about fold-and-thrust belt geometries. I used the activity as a lab exercise, having covered in a previous lecture some more mechanical concepts of fold-and-thrust belts that I felt could be better illustrated with stand-alone cross-section drawings and animations. This activity encouraged students to take their time in exploring the area using Google Earth. I introduced the activity by showing a different fold-and-thrust belt and highlighting some of its key features, then let the students work on their own with the maps distributed here.

To prepare the USGS quadrangles for overlaying in Google Earth, I simply cropped the images to the map area only, then exported the files as JPEGs. The placemarks are created as Image Overlays, with the corner coordinates given by the quadrangle extents.

Student Handout for Google Earth Fold-and-Thrust Belt Exercise (Microsoft Word 57kB May9 12)
Google Earth Placemarks and Geologic Map Overlays (Zip Archive 88.5MB May9 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips


Correct identification of fold-and-thrust belt features; framing each feature in a larger context in terms of the role that it plays in the belt; consideration of how structural geometries can influence topography and map patterns.

References and Resources