Determining Plate Rates From Hot Spot Tracks Using Google Earth

Susan Schwartz and Erin Todd, University of California-Santa Cruz
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Initial Publication Date: May 10, 2017 | Reviewed: May 10, 2019


This activity uses Google Earth to explore the distribution of plate boundaries and hotspot volcanoes on Earth. It uses the ages and locations of the hotspot volcanoes to determine the direction and rate of plate motion.

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Learning Goals

Content/concepts goals
Hotspot Volcanism
Plate Motions
Mantle Plumes

Higher order thinking skills goals
Calculating rates from distances between and ages of volcanic centers and converting units from km/million year to cm/yr. Thinking about why using different island pairs along the same chain give somewhat different values. Seeing how plate directions obtained from a number of hotspot tracks fit together.

Other skills goals
More practice with Google Earth and understanding vectors.

Context for Use

Type and level of course
This exercise is used in a University of California undergraduate introductory online class "Geology of National Parks" created by Susan Schwartz, David Osleger and Jeff Gee. It is an activity in the Module on Hotspot Volcanism.

Skills and concepts students should have mastered
The students have already covered the basics of igneous rocks and understand the association between volcanic rocks and tectonic setting. They have also completed an introductory exercise using Google Earth so they are familiar with how to load a kmz file, the use of the scale tool and other Google Earth basics.

How the activity is situated in the course
This is a stand alone exercise in the Hotspot Volcanism module.

Description and Teaching Materials

Using Google Earth, download the HotspotVolcanism.kmz file and explore its contents. The first layer shows the distribution of plate boundaries, color coded by boundary type. The second layer provides ages (in millions of years) and locations of hotspot volcanoes. In this exercise, you will use the ages and locations of the hotspot volcanoes to determine the direction and rate of plate motion.
Google Earth kmz file (KMZ File 77kB Apr24 17)
Student Handout for Plate Rate Assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 179kB Apr24 17)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Many students found matching the vector directions to the plate motion directions (trend of the volcanic islands in the hotspot track) difficult or confusing. A review of vectors may alleviate some confusion.


Assessment is based on how well the students answer the questions.

References and Resources

The IRIS video: Life of a Hotspot Volcanic Island is an excellent resource to use as a tutorial. The url to download the video is: