College of Science & Engineering Alumni Newsletter
Virtual Voyages to
Explore the Earth
By Karen Grove, Chair
possible, we Geoscientists are outside exploring the world around us.
Direct observation, however, is not always feasible. We can travel around
our local region, but many interesting localities are in different states
or countries—impossible trips in the context of the time (and funding)
allotted to most classes! Then there is the ocean. We can explore its coastal
edges, but to take in its great expanse we must employ expensive ships
and other instrumentation. Similarly, we can examine local clouds and other
weather indicators, but to really get a grasp on atmospheric conditions,
we need a broader view. Many Geosciences faculty now use computers to design
“virtual voyages” to parts of the earth, ocean, and atmosphere that we
can’t get to any other way. Virtual trips will never supplant physical
trips to the field, of course, but they do provide increasing important
supplements. A few illustrations are provided below.
In my introductory oceanography class (Geol/Metr 102), students take virtual voyages to many locations. Some examples include: (1) the seafloor west of San Francisco via computer-rendered images of ocean depth
This image of the seafloor west of San Francisco shows
depth data that were collected by sonar surveys and
generated into a three-dimensional "rendering" by
computer software. Depths are colored-coded from
light tan (shallow area near coast). Detailed data are
not available for the area west of the black line.
obtained from sonar surveys; (2) earthquakes around the world via a U.S.
Geological Survey web site that is continually updated with maps of the
most recent worldwide locations, depths, and magnitudes; (3) wave heights
in the open and coastal ocean via web sites that show “real-time” data,
that is, conditions in the ocean right now; (4) the equatorial Pacific
to view temperature and wind conditions (and predict upcoming El Niño
or La Niña events) via a NOAA web site with real-time data from
moored buoys. Students enjoy using computers to gain access to the same
data sets used by scientists. Many web sites provide computer enhancements
that help to comprehend the data. For example, sea-surface temperatures
are shown in “false” colors to provide a complete picture of ocean variations.
Earthquakes are color coded by depth so that areas with the deepest earthquakes
can be easily identified. In these ways, basic earth observations are used
to explore the processes that have formed and continue to shape our planet.
In many of our introductory geology classes, instructors use interactive software as a tool to help students understand large-scale plate tectonic processes. Software applications
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