Exploring Marine Sediments Using Google Earth

Kristen St. John, Caroline Robinson, Ben Suranovic, and Cari Rand, James Madison University; and Denise Bristol, Hillsborough Community College. Questions and suggestions on the exercise should be directed to Kristen St. John: stjohnke@jmu.edu

This activity is part of the GEODE Project

Files posted here were updated in October 2022.

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Initial Publication Date: June 26, 2019 | Reviewed: December 10, 2020


This exercise uses empirical data and Google Earth to explore the surficial distribution of marine sediments in the modern ocean. Over 2500 sites are plotted with access to original data. We recommend first completing the Primer on Google Earth to become familiar with tools in Google Earth that are used in this exercise. The Exploring Marine Sediments in Google Earth exercise has four parts:

  1. Stories from the Sea Floor – A Lesson on How Science Works
  2. A First Look at Marine Sediments
  3. Exploring the Distribution of Marine Sediment Types on the Sea Floor
  4. Refining Your Hypotheses on Biogenic Marine Sediment Distributions

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Intended for use in undergraduate Oceanography, Marine Geology, Paleoceanography, and Sedimentology courses.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be comfortable with Google Earth before working on the Parts 2 through 4. The A-Short-Primer-on-Google-Earth-March -2022.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 1.3MB Mar16 22) is designed to give students that preparation.

How the activity is situated in the course

  • This activity could be done as homework or in a lab setting with computer access. It is designed to be an exploratory introduction to marine sediments and is best used before lecture on this topic. Follow-up lecture will be important; it can build on the observations and hypotheses students make in this assignment.
  • After Some instructors prefer to skip Part 2 and move directly to Parts 3 and 4. Other instructors only do Part 2 and then follow with a lecture on marine sediments.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The primary goal of this activity is for students to use empirical data to make observations and interpretations about ocean sediments. In doing so, students should be able to address the following questions:

  • What are ocean sediments composed of?
  • What are the main types (i.e., lithologies) of ocean sediment on the seafloor?
  • Is there a pattern to its modern distribution?
  • What controls that pattern?

This activity:

  • Introduces the factors that influence the geographic distribution of marine sediments
  • Illustrates complex interactions in the Earth system
  • Explores a major archive important for paleoceanographic and paleoclimatic reconstructions

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Data analysis
  • Data management
  • Building hypotheses and testing

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Introduction to "Big Data"

Description and Teaching Materials

Exercise Files to Handout to Students

  1. A-Short-Primer-on-Google-Earth-March -2022.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 1.3MB Mar16 22) - This is an optional mini-exercise to help students get comfortable using Google Earth. It has tips on the best preference settings to use for the main activity.
  2. EXPLORING MARINE SEDIMENTS USING GOOGLE EARTH - student exercise (v5) (Acrobat (PDF) 894kB Mar16 22) - This is the main activity. It includes questions for parts 1 through 4. Students will need access to the KMZ files listed below as they work on the exercise.

KMZ Files Used in the Exercise

Video Links Used in this Exercise

  • How Science Works video (produced by the Consortium for Ocean Leadership):
  • CCD video (by Minute Earth):

Tips for Instructors

References and Resources

Data used in this exercise comes from the following research programs and databases:

  • The Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP, ): global data
  • The Ocean Drilling Program (ODP, ): global data
  • The International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP, ): global data
  • The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI, ): North Atlantic data (global data to be added soon)
  • Curators of Marine and Lacustrine Geological Samples Consortium. The Index to Marine and Lacustrine Geological Samples (IMLGS). National Geophysical Data Center, NOAA. doi:10.7289/V5H41PB8 [October 15 2014]. (.)
  • Development of this exercise is supported by the NSF-funded GEODE project.
  • This exercise supplements and compliments an NSF-funded exercise on Seafloor Sediments ( , which is an open-access chapter from St. John, K., et al., (2012) Reconstructing Earth's Climate History: Inquiry-based Exercises for Lab and Class. Wiley-Blackwell, 485p.
  • Development of this exercise has greatly benefited from assistance by Cari Rand, Caroline Robinson, Ben Suranovic, and Mladen Dordevic, James Madison University.