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Investigating Earthquakes: GIS Mapping and Analysis (College Level)

Carla McAuliffe, Center for Science Teaching and Learning at TERC, Carla_McAuliffe@terc.edu, Author.
David Smith, Digital Library for Earth System Education, dasmith@ucar.edu, Author.
Joseph Kerski, U.S. Geological Survey, jjkerski@usgs.gov, Author.

Starting Point materials: Brian Welch, St. Olaf College

Author Profile

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


This example contains general tips on how to adapt a chapter of the Earth Exploration Toolbook to a college-level geoscience course. The EET chapter describes the technique of preparing "GIS-ready" data and shows how to map that data and conduct basic analyses using a geographic information system (GIS). Users download and format near real-time and historical earthquake data from the USGS. They use latitude and longitude fields to plot the data in a GIS. They analyze patterns by querying records and overlaying datasets. The focus of the chapter's case study is earthquake prediction. Users examine earthquake distributions, monitor current earthquake activity, and try to predict where the next big earthquake will occur on Earth.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

After completing this chapter, users will be able to:

  • format data in preparation for GIS analyses
  • map and analyze geospatial information
  • interpret the results of GIS analyses to make predictions about where earthquakes will occur

Context for Use

This exercise is appropriate for introductory geoscience courses that are discussing plate tectonics and earthquakes.

The skills described to access and download online data, format the data so it can be uploaded into GIS software, and preparing maps of spatial data are all integral parts of geoscience research.

Teaching Materials

Front page of the Investigating Earthquakes: GIS Mapping and Analysis from the Earth Exploration Toolbook.

The "Teaching Notes" page of the EET chapter contains good background information. The "Going Further" page of the chapter provides additional ideas to utilize the data and maps.

Why Use Excel? - a tutorial on how to use Excel to analyze and plot data

Teaching Notes and Tips

*Note: It is not necessary for students to download the earthquake data themselves in order to carry out analyses about earthquake prediction. Some other options include the following:

  • The data can be downloaded from the USGS and formated as a .txt file ahead of time, so that students can just import the data into a GIS, querying it to look for geographic patterns.
  • The data can be downloaded ahead of time, but students can be given the opportunity to format it before importing it into a GIS for analysis.

These options are particularly useful if the class has minimal computer skills or if the exercise will be used as a classroom demonstration (limited time). Downloading the data and processing it to be compatible with GIS software can be the most time-consuming part of the exercise. While these skills are valuable to those who plan to continue in geoscience, they may detract from the geological goals of the exercise (earthquakes and plate tectonics). If the exercise will be used as a lab or take-home exercise, the detailed step-by-step notes of the EET chapter should help those most intimidated by computers.

The "Teaching Notes" page of the EET chapter contains good background information. The "Going Further" page of the chapter provides additional ideas to utilize the data and maps.

The exercise requires access to an internet-ready computer a word-processing application (e.g. MS Word), and a spreadsheet program (e.g. MS Excel, Origin, etc.). Students may need a primer on how to use Excel. Mapping is done in ESRI's ArcVoyager SE, a simple free GIS program similar to ArcView 3.x. Step-by-step instructions to download and install ArcVoyager SE on a Mac or Windows computer a provided in the EET chapter. Newer versions of ArcView could be used, if available.


Report of the analysis including earthquake data files, maps, and tectonic interpretation. Assessment can be based on the accuracy of the results and interpretation and how well the students have mastered the processing and mapping methods. If the students are asked to choose a time range of earthquake data, the range should be long enough to include enough quakes to delineate the major plate boundaries. Cartographic concepts can be introduced to make a proper map (scale information, location (lat/lon), orientation, etc.).

References and Resources

What is Excel? - a tutorial on how to use Excel to analyze and plot data

ArcVoyager SE - a simple free GIS program similar to ArcView 3.x

Instructions to download and install ArcVoyager SE from the EET chapter.


Geoscience:Geology:Geophysics, Structural Geology:Regional Structural/Tectonic Activity, Geophysics and Structural Geology, Geoscience:Geology:Tectonics, Geography:Geospatial, Environmental Science:Natural Hazards:Earthquakes

Resource Type

Computer Applications, Datasets and Tools:Datasets, Activities

Special Interest

Hazards, GIS, Quantitative

Grade Level

College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level

Quantitative Skills

Probability and Statistics:Probability

Ready for Use

Ready to Use

Earth System Topics

Solid Earth:Earthquakes, Geography, Solid Earth:Deformation, Human Dimensions:Natural Hazards, Solid Earth:Plate Tectonics


Earth surface, Solid Earth


Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Environmental Science, Teach the Earth:Teaching Topics:Earthquakes, Plate Tectonics, Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:Intro Geoscience, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:GIS/Remote Sensing, Teach the Earth:Incorporating Societal Issues:Hazards, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Geophysics, Structural Geology