Tag Archives: GEODE

The physics of a dynamic 3D plate tectonics model

Earth’s landforms have been shaped over hundreds of millions of years by the movement and interaction of Earth’s tectonic plates. While geoscientists can correlate the wide variety of landforms to this movement, teaching about it poses significant challenges. It’s hard for students to reason spatially and temporally about such processes.

One of the goals of the GEODE project is to design an interactive, dynamic plate tectonics model. Plate tectonics is a fundamental theory that unifies Earth science. It describes Earth’s surface as consisting of a number of “plates” that pull apart, move towards each other, or move side by side. These interactions are responsible for the formation and distribution of geologic phenomena.

Creating a model to represent the complex Earth system is no simple task. We wrote about the challenges of starting with a 2D version in Modeling Plate Tectonics for Learning, but decided to abandon that approach in favor of a 3D model. While visualizations of Earth’s plates exist, a 3D dynamic, interactive plate tectonics model based on physics that runs on school-based computers did not. Until now.

We have begun work on a new 3D GEODE model. The beta version already simulates the following geological processes:

  • subduction and related volcanic activity
  • continental collision and orogeny
  • forming of a new oceanic crust at divergent boundaries

Play the video to watch GEODE’s new 3D geodynamic model representing interacting plates on a modeled planet.

The plates are modeled as rigid bodies that rotate around the center of a planet. Plates are built from small, hexagonal fields with various geological properties:

  • crust type (oceanic or continental)
  • elevation (which can be changed by volcanic activity or orogeny)
  • geological data describing processes like subduction, volcanic activity, or orogeny

Plates are built from small, hexagonal fields that interact based on a physics engine that updates the forces for each hexagon

Every step of the simulation is based on a physics engine that updates the forces for each hexagon. In addition, the final torque (sum of all torques coming from the hexagonal forces), angular accelerations, and angular velocities are calculated for each plate modeled. As plates interact along the plate boundaries, the model detects either the need to generate new fields (hexagons) where plates move apart—like what happens along mid-ocean rifts—or detects collisions and determines what processes are happening—for example, subduction, mountain building, volcanic activity.

Summer intern dives deep into someone else’s code

In his spare time, Saul Amster likes to program. He’s currently working on a project to turn a tablet into a magic mirror. Yes, like Snow White’s evil stepmother (“Mirror, mirror on the wall…”), except imagine asking the mirror for the day’s forecast or the score of last night’s game. “Programming is an interesting hobby,” he says. “It’s basically free. All you need is a computer. Other hobbies require you to keep sinking money into them.”

This summer, Saul turned his programming hobby into an internship at the Concord Consortium. But while he’s used other external software libraries before, he had to teach himself to work with other people’s preexisting code, plus learn the push and pull requests of contributing code on GitHub. And although he was new to the code base underlying the Seismic Explorer software, which displays earthquakes and volcanoes worldwide using real-time data from the USGS, he didn’t let that stop him from jumping in. In fact, he’s enhanced an existing feature by redrawing the plate boundaries to make them more noticeable and added a new feature that shows arrows to display the movement of the tectonic plates. He’s now reworking how the animation is done in the model.

“I have been really impressed with Saul,” says Amy Pallant, Principal Investigator of the Geological Models for Explorations of Dynamic Earth (GEODE) project, which developed Seismic Explorer. “He has been able to add new data into the model, think about the user experience, and help me make decisions about layout, design, and data representation. His vast experience with programming, computer games and educational environments meant that I could learn from him, too.”

Saul is sure this first experience working with someone else’s code will serve him well when he heads off to Ithaca College as a freshman computer science major. “This has been super helpful for classes and for future jobs,” he says. He’s not at all worried about his freshman Java course, since he has already learned the language. It’s one of his favorites, along with C#, which he uses in his videogame programming.

Saul is excited about some high-end virtual reality gear he spotted in the computer department at Ithaca. He’s already made some small VR apps for the Google cardboard, and he’s looking forward to research opportunities. So along with clothes and toothpaste, he’s packing his laptop and external graphics box—with better cooling and more power, it’s perfect for developing (and playing) games, and getting his homework done, of course.


My Daughter Heard About an Earthquake. How Do I Explain It?

Earthquakes occur worldwide daily, and their aftereffects vary widely, from minimal to devastating. From California to the Mediterranean, some communities live with the threat and consequences of earthquakes and their aftershocks on a regular basis. Understanding what causes an earthquake is not easy. How is it possible to visualize monumental slabs of Earth moving? And why do we need to?

On June 12, 2017, newspapers worldwide reported on a 6.3 magnitude earthquake south of the island of Lesbos, Greece (off the western coast of Turkey). The quake caused widespread structural damage as well as loss of life, and it drew considerable attention, in part, because of the large number of migrants on Lesbos. How to house and care for the affected migrants and residents became a major international challenge.

But according to the USGS, the earthquake was “the result of normal faulting in the shallow crust.” The Lesbos quake was traumatic, but not unexpected. Greece and Turkey are particularly earthquake prone because they are on active fault lines. The Mediterranean region is seismically active due to the convergence of the African plate to the south with the Eurasian plate to the north. The African plate is subducting beneath the Eurasian plate at a place called the Hellenic Trench.

That’s a lot to understand, let alone visualize. When a seismic event occurs, how can a teacher explain such monumental movements of the Earth to middle school students? Typically, it’s been done with drawings and detailed descriptions, such as the excellent resources available from the USGS. But earthquakes and other geologic events are about movement, happening far out of sight. The Concord Consortium’s GEODE project is creating a way to visualize the Earth’s movements using an interactive, dynamic computer model of tectonic plates.

Another GEODE model — the Seismic Explorer — allows users to see the pattern of earthquakes worldwide, including their magnitude and depth. The Lesbos quake and many others, as well as towns and cities, are visible.

The GEODE project is still researching and developing the best ways for kids to learn about Earth’s big movements. But why is it important? Because the consequences of these movements can crumble buildings and cause loss of life. Understanding patterns of Earth’s movement may help lead to better forecasting, preparedness, and response.

Geological models to help students explore the Earth

Geoscience poses many questions. Why are there continents and oceans? How do mountains form? Why do volcanoes form in some areas and not others? What causes earthquakes to be more frequent in some areas than others? Why are oil, diamond, gold, and other deposits clustered in particular areas rather than being spread evenly across the world?

Teaching geoscience poses significant challenges. Experiments with Earth’s geology are impossible, and many of the natural processes that shape Earth, such as sedimentation, folding, and faulting, take place out of sight, over unimaginably long time periods. We think that technology has the potential help to transform how geoscience is taught and understood.

From the people who brought you High-Adventure Science comes the GEODE (Geological Models for Explorations of Dynamic Earth) project. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the new project aims to design dynamic, interactive, computer-based models and curricula to help students understand how Earth’s surface and subsurface features are shaped. As in the High-Adventure Science modules, GEODE modules will incorporate real-world data and computational models, with a focus on making scientific arguments based on evidence.

The GEODE  project, a partnership between the Concord Consortium and The Pennsylvania State University, held a kickoff brainstorming session Monday, September 27. Principal Investigator Amy Pallant and Co-PI Hee-Sun Lee, both of the Concord Consortium, and Co-PI Scott McDonald of Penn State organized a meeting to begin developing a plate tectonics model to accompany the recently developed Seismic Explorer.

In Seismic Explorer, students can see patterns of earthquake data, including magnitude, depth, location, and frequency.

In Seismic Explorer, students can see patterns of earthquake data, including magnitude, depth, location, and frequency.


Students can make a cross-section to see a three-dimensional view of the earthquakes in an area.

Professional geologists, geoscience educators, and software developers reviewed the currently available models and simulations of plate motion, earthquake waves, sedimentation, folding, and faulting, and discussed ways to make these concepts accessible to middle and high school students.

We look forward to sharing more models and activities as they are developed over the next few years!