Interactive 3D Map Offers Unique Insight into Earthquakes

It’s time to add another treasure to our folder of enlightening scientific visualizations, which has grown thick over the past few years thanks in large part to researchers attempting to understand black holes, planets, and the Sun. This time around we have a scientific visualization focused not on outer space, however, but on Earth, and the way it quakes throughout its outermost shell.

The 3D visualization was created by Product Engineer Raluca Nicola, who says she has fun “mapping things in 3D.” The visualization was inspired by a 30-day geographic information system (GIS) challenge initiated by Finnish geographer, Topi Tjukanov. The challenge, which trended on twitter via the hashtag, #30DayMapChallenge, called for creating a map each day in the month of November 2019. The maps focused on topics such as “resources,” “population,” “climate,” and “funny.” The challenge resulted in tons of inventive maps—e.g. this one mapping the paths of tornadoes in the U.S. and this one optimizing journeys around London in order to circumvent densely populated areas.

Nicola’s 3D interactive visualization, which can be found here, was made utilizing data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) collected between July 2017 and July 2018. Clicking on any one of the large, colored dots located on the surface of the 3D Earth image—which looks a lot like the hologram of the Death Star from Star Wars, bee-tee-dubs—immediately brings up information on a given earthquake.

Raluca Nicola

Although the little earthquake profiles note when a particular earthquake happened, where it hit, and how strong it was on the Richter scale, perhaps the most relevant bit of information concerns the depth at which it occurred in Earth’s lithosphere—the lithosphere is the outermost shell of a terrestrial-type planet, and on Earth, is made up of the crust and the portion of the upper mantle. It’s the depth that seems like the highlight here because it’s this feature of the 3D map that stands out as the most insightful. At least to those not all that familiar with the way seismic waves ripple throughout Earth.

Nicola does note that the depth at which the earthquakes first occurred has been exaggerated by a factor of 8, which means all of these earthquakes happened much closer to Earth’s surface than it seems. But visualizations of data can’t always be super-accurate, obviously, and this 3D map does its job of letting us know that Earth is in a state of constant tumult that seems quite unnerving when you stop and think about it. Or worse, when you see it visualized like something the Rebel Alliance wants to blow to smithereens.

What do you think about this 3D map of all the earthquakes around the world from July 2017 through July 2018? Has this visualization completely changed the way you think about earthquakes, or were you already familiar with these patterns? Map out your opinions in the comments!

Header image: Raluca Nicola via The Viral Digest

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