GEOG 1000: Physical Geography

Signature Assignment – Tracking Earthquakes and Volcanoes using Google Earth


A young Buddhist monk looks on at a monastery damaged by an earthquake in Gangtok, India in September 2011. The earthquake int a remote Himalayan region damaged an estimated 100,000 homes. AP photo, courtesy of


For my signature assignment in Physical Geography, I chose to track real-time earthquakes and volcanoes  using Google® earth. For part one of this assignment, I downloaded the real-time earthquake information from USGS and was able to isolate all of the earthquakes with a magnitude of 4.0 or higher to begin my search of the specific types I needed to locate. Unfortunately, when the information uploaded, it did not show the actual plate boundaries around the world so I had a second tab opened up with a map of those simultaneously. My process for locating earthquakes along the five types of plate boundaries, as outlined in the assignment, was to first locate the boundary where an earthquake should occur (i.e. oceanic-oceanic, oceanic-continental, continental-continental, divergent, and transform). Then, once I located the type of boundary, it was simply a matter of choosing an earthquake along it and analyzing the information. USGS provided the detailed information on the earthquake, such as magnitude, location, date, time, and focus, but it was up to me to interpret WHY it happened at that specific spot. Mentally, I referred back to what I had learned in class lecture, and physically I went back and read information from my current Geography textbook as well as my old Geology textbooks. Visualizing how the different plates collide, dive, and uplift with each other helped me to understand why earthquakes occur where they do.

For the second portion of this assignment, I had to identify four types of volcanoes and determine what type of tectonic plate boundary it was found on. I found it challenging to find a correlation between a specific type of volcano and its occurrence only on a certain type of plate boundary. As with tracking earthquakes, I uploaded the assignment file into Google® earth and it instantly displayed thousands of volcanoes around the globe. Utilizing the boundaries at which the earthquakes occurred, I then looked for volcanoes in the same regions as the first step in my process. Then, I began hopping from volcano to volcano by hovering over all of them looking for the specific types I needed to find. Once I found the type I needed, I clicked on the link to the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program page which gave me the detailed information about that particular volcano. I found this portion of the assignment much more challenging in that it was difficult for me to locate a cinder cone volcano along a divergent plate boundary. I went back into my textbook at this point, and re-read information about divergent plate boundaries, and consulted National Geographic’s site about Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Once I dove into exploring that region of the world, I was able to find what I was looking for to complete my work.

Ever since my first Geology class, I have had a fascination with seafloor spreading and the “striping” that occurs as a result so I took great pleasure in completing this assignment, and I really enjoyed diving into the maps on Google® earth to view places in multiple dimensions. Mapping has evolved so much in the last decade, and even though I still like to consult my atlas, I look forward to exploring the world in an entirely new and fascinating way using similar products through the study of GIS. I appreciate that this assignment allowed me to use my investigative, analytical, and critical thinking skills to the fullest, and at the same time fed my curiosity.

When I honed in on the earthquake in Dharmasala, India, I looked into who lives there (it turns out that his holiness the Dalai Lama spends a lot of time there), how they live and what life has been like in the past when there is an earthquake of higher magnitude with a shallow focus. Earthquakes not only build mountains through collision, they also can cause great devastation culturally and economically depending on who they affect. This made me begin considering how an earthquake on our own Bonneville fault line would affect me, especially considering that my house is right on the fault and in the red zone, according to the map. Having never lived anywhere previously with a significant fault and taking into consideration what I have learned in the course of this assignment, I do believe that all of us Utahans should be prepared for “the big one.”

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