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Global GIS Lesson:

Exploring North American Earthquakes

By Joseph J. Kerski


In this lesson, students use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) together with the tools and data from the North America Global GIS CD to investigate earthquakes, volcanoes, and population from a local to global scale. The lessons can be used with other data in the Global GIS project to investigate earthquakes in other continents. Furthermore, the methods used here can be applied to other map themes contained within the North America Global GIS CD.

What is GIS?

Maps have always been powerful ways to represent information. A GIS combines the power of maps, satellite images, and aerial photographs with databases that store information behind the maps and images. One way to think about GIS is to break it up into its three initials. The “G” part of GIS could be a map, a three-dimensional representation of the Earth’s surface, or an image. The “I” part of GIS is the Information, or the database, containing attributes behind each map feature. This could be the magnitude of an earthquake, for example, or the population of a country. The “S” part of GIS is invisible to the user, but this Systems part makes it possible to analyze the maps and attributes together.

Another way to think about GIS is to think of it in terms of computer hardware, software, methods, and a human explorer. GIS requires computer hardware and software to use. In the case of this lesson, ArcReader and ArcView software from ESRI, Inc. will be used. GIS involves specific methods, or procedures. In this lesson, students will have the opportunity to use many of these procedures, such as querying, sorting, changing legends, creating buffers, and others. GIS also requires certain kinds of spatial data. These are produced by national governmental organizations such as the USGS, the US Census Bureau, NASA, and others, as well as tribal, state, and local government, nonprofit organizations, and private industry. However, the most important component of a GIS is the user. It is the person that must make sense of what the GIS tools and methods are saying, and it is the person who must decide what action to take.

Why Use GIS in Education?

As the world becomes ever more monitored, mapped, and surveyed, students have the opportunity as never before to take advantage of the same tools that scientists are using. One tool essential for analyzing the Earth is a Geographic Information System (GIS). A GIS allows the user not just to create computerized maps, but also to analyze patterns, linkages, and trends that exist above, on, or below the Earth’s surface. Oceanographers, geologists, geographers, seismologists, climatologists, biologists, chemists, zoologists, and other scientists regularly use GIS to help them make wise decisions about the planet. Why not tap into this powerful tool for teaching and learning?

A GIS user is not confined to the static content, locked scale, and symbols of a paper map. Rather, a GIS allows the user to create his or her own map—one that is customized to address the issues and problem at hand.

Analyzing the Earth with a GIS in the classroom provides for inquiry-based, problem-solving learning. Students ask a question, acquire the necessary tools and data to address the question, analyze the data using the GIS and other tools, and assess the results of their investigation. This may lead to further investigation and additional questions. In addition, learning with GIS allows for the integration of field data collection with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to obtain the precise coordinates of where the data were collected. It also allows for interdisciplinary learning that is exciting and relevant to address the major issues of the 21st Century, such as biodiversity, population growth, climate change, natural hazards, and energy. In this lesson, students are given the opportunity to analyze a specific natural hazard—earthquakes—using GIS software and methods of analysis.

Problem Setting

Earthquakes in North America are costly in both lives and property. For the past 25 years, the average cost of North American earthquakes has been approximately $2.5 billion dollars per year in property and critical infrastructure damage. On average, 1,000 people have died in North American earthquakes each year for the past 25 years. As the population grows and development expands to cover more and more of the land area of North America, this average will grow as well.

In this earthquakes lesson, students are given a scenario where they must report on the distribution and frequency of earthquakes in North America related to cities, political boundaries, volcanoes, and fault lines. They analyze current earthquakes from the Internet, and assess the hazards from a continental to a local scale, to their community.


Science Standards

GIS Skills Involved

Investigation Overview


Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

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