Using Google Earth to Explore Plate Tectonics

This page is authored by Laurel Goodell, Department of Geosciences, Princeton University.
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: September 3, 2010 | Reviewed: December 10, 2020


Students are introduced to Google Earth, and then start by exploring the major physiographic features of the continents and seafloor. They then use a kmz file, compiled by the author, which includes layers showing seafloor age, locations and depths of 20 years worth of large earthquakes, USGS dynamically updated near-real time earthquakes, volcano locations, "hot-spot" tracks with age dates, and the Bird (2003) plate boundary model. A guided exploration of these data serves as an introduction to plate tectonics - including the general characteristics of plates and plate boundaries, and the use of seafloor age and "hot spot" tracks to determine long-term average rates of plate motion.

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Learning Goals

Students learn how to use Google Earth and become familiar with the some of the important data on which the theory of plate tectonics is based, and how long-term average plate motions are determined. As a culminating (and assessment) activity they sketch a cross-section across three major plate boundaries - from the African plate, across the South Atlantic plate, across the Nazca plate, and ending in the middle of the Pacific Plate.

Context for Use

This exercise is adaptable for all level of students, from introductory level students to more-advanced students wanting a crash course in plate tectonics. I submit two versions, one being slower-paced and more explicitly guided. I have used it in a number of class settings. For example, for our hazards course for non-majors, I assign a portion of the more-explicitly guided version as a preparation assignment, then students complete the rest during a lab session. For our faster-paced introductory class typically taken by more quantitatively-able students including engineers, the less-guided versions is assigned as a problem set then discussed at precept. Depending on a student's previous experience with Google Earth, background in plate tectonics, and ease with simple graphing and calculations, and how far the instructor wants to take it, the whole exercise typically takes several hours to a lab period or two. No background is assumed, although it is helpful for students to have have a basic knowledge of global geography.

The kmz file compiled by the author is a easy-to-use resource adaptable for other activities.

Description and Teaching Materials

Materials include two versions of the student handout, one more explicitly guided than the other, and a Google Earth kmz file with data layers compiled from other a variety of sources. The sources of the compiled data are given in the Google Earth layer menu.

Dynamic Earth kmz file for use with Plate Tectonics exercises (KMZ File 1.1MB Feb21 23)

Handout for Exploring Plate Tectonics with Google Earth, more guided version (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 103kB Feb23 13)

Handout for Exploring Plate Tectonics with Google Earth, more guided version (Acrobat (PDF) 204kB Feb23 13)

Handout for Exploring Plate Tectonics with Google Earth, less guided version (Microsoft Word 51kB Feb23 13)

Handout for Exploring Plate Tectonics with Google Earth, less guided version (Acrobat (PDF) 130kB Feb23 13)

Individual Google Earth data layers

Plate boundary model (KMZ File 66kB Aug14 14)
Plate boundary model with orogens (KMZ File 79kB Aug14 14)

Data source: Bird, Peter (2003) An updated digital model of plate boundaries, Geochemistry Geophysics Geosystems, 4(3), 1027; converted into Google Earth format by Thomas Chust (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen).

USGS 5.4+ epicenters colored by depth.kmz (KMZ File 1.5MB Dec25 16) 'USGS Earthquakes 5.4+ 1986-2015, colored by depth']

Data source: compiled from USGS NEIC catalog

USGS Earthquakes 1.0+ for the past week, plotted by depth, updated every 5 minutes (KMZ File 440bytes Aug14 14)

USGS Earthquakes 2.5+ for the past 30 days, plotted by depth, updated every 15 minutes (KMZ File 442bytes Aug14 14)

File source:

Seafloor age 10 my isochrons (KMZ File 227kB Aug14 14)
Seafloor age 5 my isochrons (KMZ File 9.6MB Aug14 14)

Data source: Muller, R. D., W. R. Roest, J. Y. Royer, L. M. Gahagan, and J. G. Sclater. 1997. Digital isochrons of the world's ocean floor.J. Geophys. Res. 102:3,211-3,214; AND Müller, R.D., Sdrolias, M., Gaina, C. and Roest, W.R., 2008, Age spreading rates and spreading asymmetry of the world's ocean crust, Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, 9, Q04006, doi:10.1029/2007GC001743.

Holocene Volcanoes (KMZ File 534bytes Aug14 14)

Data source: Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Italian translated version of this activity, hosted by ICLEEN - Google Earth e la dinamica della Terra


The last question serves as an appropriate assessment - students sketch a cross-section across three major plate boundaries. By assessing the sketch, the instructor can gauge the level and accuracy of student understanding. The sketches also serve as a natural springboard for discussion about various aspects of plate tectonics.