Visualizing Earthquakes at Divergent Plate Margins

Cara Harwood
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In this activity students visualize the distribution and magnitude of earthquakes at divergent plate boundaries. Earthquakes are visualized on a 3D globe, making it easy to see their distribution within Earth's surface without having to mentally transform and interpret symbols that indicate earthquake magnitude and hypocenter depth.

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Introductory-level undergraduate earth science class, although talking points could be adapted for younger students by giving more background.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should understand that divergent boundaries occur where plates are moving apart and new crust is being created. Students should also be familiar with elements of the visualization (introduced in Visualization 1; i.e. how earthquakes are represented, what different sizes and colors of points represent) and have mastered the concepts associated with Visualization 1.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is part of a series of visualizations in a unit about plate tectonics, although each visualization could also be used in isolation.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students will understand the following concepts:
  • Shallow, low-magnitude earthquakes commonly occur at divergent plate boundaries.
  • Earthquakes at divergent plate boundaries are distributed with predictable locations and depths.
  • Earthquakes at divergent plate boundaries occur as new crust is created and other crust is pushed apart. This causes the crust to crack and form faults where earthquakes occur.
  • Most earthquakes at divergent plate boundaries occur at mid-ocean ridges where two pieces of oceanic crust are moving away from each other. Some earthquakes at divergent boundaries occur in the middle of continents in rift zones.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students will be able to:
  • Synthesize large data sets to recognize naturally occurring patterns
  • Use patterns in data sets to make predictions about the distribution and characteristics of earthquakes
  • Visualize data in 3D that is traditionally represented in 2D

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

This screenshot from the visualization shows both continental rift zones, and ocean spreading centers, both types of divergent plate boundaries. The visualization shows how earthquakes at all types of divergent margins are shallow and have a low-magnitude. Click the image to enlarge or view the MP4 movie (MP4 Video 79.3MB Aug22 11).
The purpose of this activity is to introduce students to the distribution and characteristics of earthquakes associated with divergent plate boundaries. Students will learn about how the magnitude and distribution of earthquakes at divergent boundaries are related to processes that occur at these boundaries and to the geometry and position of the two diverging plates. Because the depth of earthquakes can be difficult for students to visualize in 2D representations, this activity allows students to visualize the 3D distribution of earthquakes within Earth's surface, which is essential for understanding how different types of earthquakes occur in different tectonic settings. Locations featured in the visualization include the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the East Pacific Rise, and the East African Rift Zone. Talking points and questions are included to facilitate using this visualization as part of an interactive lecture. In addition to playing back the visualization, instructors can also download the visualization software and data set and explore it themselves.

Determining whether students have met the goals

'Quakes Questions' throughout each activity are short-answer questions that students answer while the visualization is playing to ensure that they are taking away key concepts. These questions require students to synthesize ideas and articulate their understanding of concepts introduced in the visualization. The final 'Quakes Question' requires them to integrate concepts from this visualization with those from 'Visualization 2: Earthquakes and Convergent Plate Boundaries.'

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

The visualization software used to create this visualization is freely available and can be downloaded from In addition to playing back the visualizations available here, instructors can also download the visualization software and data sets and explore it themselves. Download the software and quick-start guide to begin exploring your own data sets in your classroom.

Please contact the author ( if you would like a higher resolution video.