Google Earth Innovations of Geophysicist Win International Competition

Old Dominion University geophysicist Declan De Paor uses Google Earth in fascinating ways, and his innovations have made him a winner in the 2009 international “KML in Research” competition sponsored by Google Inc.

KML stands for Keyhole MarkUp Language, a computer programming dialect of Extensible Markup Language (XML) designed for virtual globes such as Google Earth and NASA World Wind. De Paor invented a way to use KML to create 3-D data visualizations and models of the Earth’s geology and geophysics.

Zoom in on Google Earth to the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Hatteras, and De Paor can show you more than just water or the topography of the ocean floor. His downloadable KML files will enable you to lift up the continental shelf revealing a cross-section of the Earth’s lithospheric structure.

To the Google Earth view of Mount Fuji, he contributes an overlay that is a slice of the mountain, answering the question posed by the title of a recent book, “How Would You Move Mount Fuji?” with the answer, “With Google Earth and KML!”

De Paor’s models of the Earth’s structure under Iceland reveal the different scales of lithospheric plate tectonics and mantle plume tectonics. His competition entry — “Emergent Models of Earth’s Crustal Structure” — allows users to investigate the crust and mantle under the Aleutian island arc in Alaska.

All of this is done with the purpose of helping students understand geologic processes.

With colleagues Steve Whitmeyer of James Madison University and Janice Gobert of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, the ODU scientist is attempting to discover whether — and, if so, how — student learning is enhanced by 3-D visualizations. “Do students actually benefit from simplified cartoon-style models that dominate textbook illustrations or would they be better off if presented with the real data?” he asks.

This work is funded by the National Science Foundation Division of Undergraduate Education through a Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) grant.

De Paor was informed by a Google representative that his Aleutian model was a winner: “Your entry was selected because it represented a novel and compelling representation of science using Google Earth and the KML,” wrote Ryan Falor of the Google Earth Education Team. “As KML continues to evolve, we hope to enable more work like yours by providing teachers resources, tutorials, and examples to guide new developers and students.”

Other winners in the competition were from University of California - Berkeley, The City University of London, Michigan Tech Research Institute, and the ThematicMapping.Org enterprise in Norway. Their entries range from a visual overlay showing the carbon cycle for North America to a visualization of global infant mortality.

Google Earth is a virtual globe that maps the Earth by the superimposition of images obtained from satellites, aerial photography, and other geographic information systems. Many scientific users are adding their own data to Google Earth imaging via the KML, but De Paor is breaking new ground by adding 3-D models using the Google SketchUp program, an application designed principally for adding 3-D buildings to the Google terrain.

“When we first looked at SketchUp about four years ago, we thought, if you can make models of 10-meter-scale buildings and place them on the Google Earth ground surface, then why not 10-kilometer or even 10,000 kilometer-scale geological block diagrams and cross sections,” De Paor said. Some of his recent research, including a project titled “Deconstructing Classical Geological Maps Using Google Earth’s Keyhole Markup Language,” has been done in collaboration with his wife, Carol Simpson, the ODU provost and an expert in structural geology and tectonics.

De Paor is a research professor of geophysics in the Department of Physics at ODU and the new director of the university’s Pretlow Planetarium. Both he and Simpson are Fellows of the Geological Society of America.

Quest Summer 2009 • Volume 12 Issue 1