How do I use vectors?
Plotting magnitude and direction in the Earth sciences
What are vectors and what are they good for?
To describe the temperature, it's enough to say it's 65 degrees F. If all that is required is a number and units, we call that thing a scalar quantity. But to describe something that is moving, or a force causing motion, the direction also matters. Groundwater is flowing at a rate of 1.5 feet per day (ft/d) due south. If the description requires both an amount and a direction, it is a vector quantity. Vector quantities are often drawn on maps as arrows. In this module vector quantities are shown in bold; scalar quantities in regular font.
How do I distinguish vectors from scalars and understand vector maps?
Vectors have both a magnitude and a direction
- Magnitude is the number, in this case the rate of motion of the GPS station in millimeters per year (mm/yr)
- Direction of the vector is just the orientation of the arrow
- On vector
Maps Step 1. This map shows elevations and plate motion velocities. Is each property a scalar or a vector?
Maps Step 2. Identify the magnitude scale of vectors. What is the rate of motion `(V_C)` of the GPS on the Cocos Islands (the longest arrow in the lower right)?
Maps Step 3.
How do I find the components of a vector?
The Cocos Islands station velocity vector has magnitude (rate) = 116 mm/yr and an azimuth of 36o. What is the eastward rate of motion of the Cocos Island GPS station? What is the northward rate of motion?
Components Step 1 (maps). Identify the resultant vector magnitude and direction, and the components you want to solve for.
Components Step 2 (maps). Find the triangle that includes the resultant, components, and angle.
Components Step 3 (maps). Use trigonometry to solve for the components.
Components Step 4 (maps). Does your answer make sense?
To find vector components relative to another
Intuitively, we would guess that the steeper the dip of the rupture surface, the more likely it is that a landslide would slip. This problem asks you to check that intuition using the physics of slope stability.
The forces driving and resisting landslide slip depend on the gravitational force on the landslide G and the dip angle of the slip surface theta as shown in Figure AA. The gravitational force G can be resolved into the downslope component Gd parallel to the rupture surface and the perpendicular component Gp. Gd acts to drive slip of the body of the landslide down the rupture surface. In contrast the perpendicular Gp helps the landslide stick to the underlying rock, so it acts to resist slip. Compare rupture surface dip angles of 70o and 40o. Show that for the steeper 70o dip angle, the downslope force Gd is greater and the resisting force Gp is weaker than the 40o scenario. Assume the magnitude of the gravitational force of the body of the landslide G is 1.5 x 1010 N.
To solve this we will follow the steps for finding the components of vectors in a given direction for both the 40o degree and 70o dip angle cases.
Components Step 1. 1a. Identify the resultant vector and the direction for which you want to find the perpendicular and parallel components. 1b. Find the angle between the resultant vector and the given direction.
Components Step 2. Find the triangle that includes the resultant, components parallel and perpendicular to the given direction, and an angle inside the triangle. (To do this, it may help to rotate your geometry to draw the given direction as vertical or horizontal.)
Components Step 3. Use the trigonometry in Figure AB to solve for the components.
Components Step 4. Does your answer make sense?
How do I multiply a vector by a scalar?
Multiplying by a positive scalar results in a vector with a different magnitude but the same direction. When multiplying a vector by a negative scalar
Velocity of a Volcanic Bomb
Explosive volcanic eruptions are dynamic events where material is ejected from the volcanic conduit at high velocities. Volcanologists refer to the material erupted as tephra, which is classified based on its size. Large (> 2 mm) projectiles are called 'bombs' and in high energy eruptions can fall kilometers (km) away from the vent.
A volcanic bomb is erupted from a volcano with a initial upward velocity (Vup) of 200 meters per second (m/s). The downward velocity (Vdown) of the bomb just before impact with the ground is 1/4 of the initial velocity. What is the velocity of the bomb just before impact?
Step 1. Identify the magnitude and direction of the vector to be multiplied and the scalar multiplication factor.
Step 2. Multiply the vector magnitude by the scalar to get new the magnitude.
Step 3. Does your answer make sense?
How do I add vectors?
The volcanoes of the Hawaiian Emperor Seamount Chain provide a record of the motion of the Pacific Plate over the Hawaiian hotspot for the past 80 million years (Myr). The plate has been moving to the northwest for the past 47 Myr but was traveling more northerly prior to that.
The distance between the Big Island of Hawaii, the current location of the hotspot (age = 0 Myr) and the Daikakuji Seamount (age = 47 Myr) is 3520 km with an azimuth of 300o. Between Daikakuji Seamount and the Meiji Seamount (age = 82 Myr) the distance is 2375 km with an azimuth of 351o.
What is the net velocity of the Pacific Plate over the past 80 Myr?
Step 3. Add the magnitudes of the component vectors with the same direction to calculate the component vectors of the sum.
Step 4. Use your results in Step 3 to find the magnitude and azimuth of the sum vector.
Step 5. Does your answer make sense?
Where are vectors useful in the Earth sciences?
Vectors are important to many subdisciplines of the Earth sciences. A few examples
Meanings and maps of vectors:
- Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements of plate motions
- The movement of contaminant plumes in the atmosphere, oceans, and freshwater systems
One-dimensional vector addition/subtraction and scalar multiplication:
- Calculating effective sea level rise with both rising sea level and subsiding land
- Examining the forces driving sinkhole collapse
- Tracking the rise of bubbles and sinking of crystals in magmatic systems
Two-dimensional vector components and addition/subtraction:
- Finding the relative velocity of two tectonic plates along their boundary
- Tracking the motion of sand along a coastline due to longshore transport
- Computing groundwater flow rate and direction from three wells
- Applying Snell's Law to wave refraction and groundwater flow refraction
- Examining the forces involved in slope stability/failure in landslides.
- Understanding the readings of commonly used magnetometers that measure the magnetic field strength (but not the magnetic field direction).
More help (resources for students)
- Khan Academy introduction to vectors and scalars
- Mathworld (http://mathworld.wolfram.com) or Khan Academy or similar.
Pages written by Sarah Kruse (University of South Florida) and John Zayac (Vassar College).