Google Earth Investigation of Pleistocene Flood Deposits Across the Pacific Northwest

Elizabeth Cassel, University of Idaho

With contributions from Haley Thoresen and Andrew Canada, University of Idaho

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Initial Publication Date: January 25, 2022 | Reviewed: August 4, 2022


In this activity, students use Google Earth Pro to examine and measure sedimentary and geomorphic structures related to the late Pleistocene draining of glacial Lake Missoula and Lake Bonneville.

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This activity is used for college-aged individuals majoring in Geoscience at a small to medium-sized institution. The course is a 300-level Sedimentology and Stratigraphy course with 10-20 students. This is a lab activity that usually takes 3-4 hours to complete, with the assistance of an instructor. Access to Google Earth Pro is needed to complete this activity.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Basic background knowledge of the Missoula Floods is given to the students prior to this assignment. Students have already learned the fundamental physical processes that drive the erosion and transport of sediment in the course.

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity is situated in a as a piece of a larger project including field work and literature review, but is a stand-alone activity that could be integrated into a set of lab activities for Sed/Strat or Geomorphology, or an online field camp.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The goals of this exercise are:
1. To explore and practice using Google Earth to collect quantitative data.
2. To broaden your familiarity with both the genesis and geologic consequences of flood events, which strongly affected the landscape of the Pacific Northwest.
3. Build a basic understanding of the Missoula Floods and the field evidence there is to support them.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Analysis, evaluation, synthesis, application

Other skills goals for this activity

Students are familiarized with the range of quantitative tools and data available on Google Earth Pro.

Description and Teaching Materials

This activity is completed using Google Earth Pro, typically in a university computer lab.
Activity Questions (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 6.7MB Dec30 21)
Google Earth KMZ (KMZ File 1kB Dec30 21) 

Teaching Notes and Tips

This is usually taught in a University Computer Lab with an instructor present the entire time to answer questions. Students will typically take 3-4 hours to complete this activity. It is helpful to give a quick run-through of basic Google Earth functions before allowing them to begin, including but not limited to zoom, tilt, elevation profiles, measuring distances, rotating point of view, etc. Students are work in pairs or in groups of three if there is an odd number but could be done individually depending on instructor preference.


Point totals for each question are included in the activity. Most questions have a range of answers, so a good approach to grading this assignment is 1) making sure they answered all parts of the question, 2) they explained how they came to that answer 3) their numerical answers are within decent error of the ones given. They also must use SI units and full sentences are required.