College of Science & Engineering Alumni Newsletter

Spring 2000

Virtual Voyages to Explore the Earth
By Karen Grove, Chair
Geosciences Department

    Whenever 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
image of the seafloor west of San Francisco
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.
using data 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
include animations of processes such as sea-floor spreading and plate subduction that cannot possibly be viewed directly. Students go to web sites that show where, and in which tectonic setting, volcanoes have recently erupted. They visit museums to see fossil collections from many different environments. Virtual field trips created by geologists and displayed on web sites enable students to visit classic localities and view faults, landforms, and other features around the world.
    To get the “big picture” view needed to forecast impending weather, the meteorologists receive a continual stream of atmospheric data. For example, infrared and visible image data from satellite sensors show regional areas of cloud cover and precipitation. Many of these data are processed and displayed on the “SFSU California Regional Weather Server” part of our departmental web site, where they are used by students in meteorology classes and by the general public. These data, measured from satellites and delivered to any computer, give even amateur meteorologists the same tools used by professionals.
    We will continue to go outdoors to explore earth’s processes whenever we can.  After all, that is what attracted most of us to the Geosciences in the first place! But we are also developing creative new ways to explore the world. These computer-aided techniques allow us to visit parts of the planet that we can’t access directly, to see worldwide views of conditions in real time, and to obtain visualizations that help us to better integrate and synthesize the available data. In significant ways, technological innovations are transforming the way we teach and learn. Please visit our Department’s web site ( to see some examples of faculty innovations.

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Updated by Lannie Nguyen-Tang on August 3rd, 2000