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Exploring the World on the World Wide Web

by Dave Keifer (

The world has been shrinking for some time now. From the dawn of the telegraph through the advent of the World Wide Web, each new communication technology–by allowing us to send bigger messages, faster, over greater distances–has effectively reduced the size of the planet. But what sets the Web apart from its predecessors is that, besides making our world seem smaller, it also presents it to us in greater detail. So rich are the veins of information running through the Web, that there is almost no feature of the physical world that it can't help illuminate or explain. Netizens anywhere can look out a window and gaze at the rolling hills, the vast plain or the rugged coast, then turn to their computers and, with a few keystrokes, uncover the natural forces that created their physical environment.

 Whatever area you call home, the best place on the Web to start finding out about its geological history is the Ohio Division of Geological Survey's State Geological Survey Site. There you will find direct links to the official geological sites of all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico. Each state's site is set up differently, but they all contain loads of local information–such as the reason for all those boulders along the coast of Maine, and how come the sand in New Mexico is so white.

 To see how your area fits into the broader geological context of the nation, a visit to the U. S. GeologicalSurvey is in order. One of the site's best features is the National Atlas Online, which provides animated maps of terrain elevation and vegetation growth and other interactive maps that can be made to display all sorts of information–from the territorial range of different butterfly species to the locations of nuclear facilities. For a different national perspective check out Terra Server, which features detailed topographical maps for the entire lower 48. 

  Of course, the Web also allows you to take a look at the planet as a whole. Planetscapes offers an extraordinary array of interactive views of the Earth from space, as well as chart of the Earth's vital statistics, plus a real-time animated map showing the Earth's daytime andnighttime regions. Or you can visit Geology Link to browse an archive of geology-related news stories from around the world and get a daily update on worldwide geological activities–a feature that really drives home just how dynamic our planet is.

Most of the Earth's dynamism happens to be channeled through volcanoes and earthquakes, and many sites are devoted solely to these dramatic phenomena. The aptly named features scores of links to volcano sites around the world. One of the best of these is Volcanoes Online, which includes several tutorials on types of volcanoes and eruptions–all of which are linked to an illustrated glossary of vulcanology. You can also get a quick overview of the world's volcano situation by checking in with the Volcano Map of the World, and the ``Today in Volcano History" calendar at Volcano World.

 A wise first stop for earthquake information is the Institute for Crustal Studies' Understanding Earthquakes page. There you'll find a rotating globe displaying earthquake epicenters, animation showing how earthquakes are produced and links to other educational sites. Another great site is Big Trouble in Earthquake Town, which hosts an interactive exercise that allows you to use satellite photographs, maps and other geological information to assess the potential damage of a hypothetical earthquake. A similar site is the Virtual Earthquake, which teaches you how to use seismographic information to locate the epicenter and determine the Richter magnitude of a hypothetical earthquake. Of course, it's not the hypothetical earthquakes we need to worry about, so we would all do well to pay a visit to the Earthquake Fact Sheet, which offers quick tips for earthquake preparedness, and the Home Preparedness Guide, which offers more detailed information on how to earthquake proof a home.

 Neither volcanoes nor earthquakes can be fully understood without some knowledge of plate tectonics–the study of the movement of the massive slabs of rock that make up the Earth's crust. While all of the volcano and earthquake sites listed above include some information about plate tectonics, the Plate Tectonics page is dedicated solely to this dynamic process. You can also visit Donald L. Blanchard's ABCs of Plate Tectonics for a more detailed explanation–complete with mathematical formulas. For a more colorful, if less technical, examination of the topic, visit the Paleomap Project, which features illustrations that trace the drift of the continents from 650 million years ago right up to the present. There's also an illustration of what the Earth might look like 250 million years in the future, a time when–if the conjecture is correct–you'll be able to walk from Brasilia to Cape Town.

  When dealing with such long periods of time, it becomes clear why geologists need a system of classification that goes beyond the Julian calendar. Geological time–calculated in epochs, periods and eras–seems complicated at first, but a trip through the Geological Time Machine will go a long way toward making it clear. The site features a detailed list of all the units of geological time, most of which act as links to separate pages dedicated to the flora, fauna, fossils and geological structures dating from that time. If you decide you need to memorize all the time units–in order–check out Dr. Bob's Geological Time Page for dozens of handy mnemonic tricks. (Can't keep the eras strait? Just say ``Put Eggs On My Plate Please Honey!")

 While most natural changes to the Earth's surface are attributable to plate tectonics, some have origins that are positively otherworldly. The Terrestrial Impact Crater Page offers photographs of 13 impact craters around the world, a list of all known impact craters, and a brief but thorough lesson on the different types of craters and how they are formed. The Barringer Crater Page is dedicated to a single gigantic crater in New Mexico, but also features general crater information, plus a 3D animated game, in which you choose a meteor's size, point it at a particular spot on Earth, and, as the page hosts say, ``watch its destructive power." Of course, no discussion of terrestrial impact craters is complete without mention of the infamous, alleged dinosaur-killer impact at Chicxulub, Mexico. For a dramatic look at this catastrophe, visit The Chicxulub Impact.

 Fortunately, volcanoes, earthquakes and meteors are, if not few, then at least far between. By and large, our planet is a stable, hospitable place, ripe for exploration. The National Parks offer great expanses of land for hands-on geological exploration, and the National Parks Service facilitates this with its Park Geology site, which takes a look at the National Park system through a geologist's eyes. Besides articles on many of the Park Service's geologically oriented restoration, research and education programs, it also links to the Geology Tour of the National Parks. This site lists 14 geological structures–everything from glaciers to hot springs–and uses them to index links to the various National Parks where examples of the structures can be found. If you care to extend your geological explorations beyond the bounds of the National Park system, check out A Geologist's Lifetime Field List.Here you'll find links to a lifetime's worth of geological activities. The list includes more that 20 types of geological phenomena (such as geysers), dozens of specific sites (such as the Grand Canyon), and six other things that ``need to be experienced, rather than merely seen." This last category includes seeing a live tsunami,so a sense of adventure is absolutely required.

 For those of us who prefer to get our adventuresthrough the Web, there's always the Virtual Cave.There you'll find an interactive illustration of a massive cavern filled with interesting geological structures. Click on a stalactite or a conulite and be taken instantly to a separate page filled with information, pictures and other links covering that phenomenon. To give the cave some virtual context, visit the Nevada Seismological Lab's Earth's Interior site. There you'll get the lowdown on the Earth's crust, mantle, core and inner core–all presented in an information-rich array of computer graphics, charts and illustrated text. For a virtual underground adventure of a different sort, check out the full text of Edgar Rice Burroughs' science-fiction classic ``At The Earth's Core," courtesy of the Gutenberg Project, an online library offering thousands of e-books.

Of course, there are literally hundreds of other worthwhile geology sites on the Web, ranging from Earthforce, a child-oriented educational site to Rob's Granite Page , a site dedicated almost entirely to ``granite and things granitic." But perhaps the most significant geological site on the Web is the U. S. Geological Survey's Ask A Geologist Page, which gives you a means to pose a question directly to Geological Survey earth scientist. Lots of the sites listed above boast interactive features of some sort, but sometimes it's best to interact with an expert. Thanks to the Web, you can do that too.

 Dave Keifer is a freelance writer living in Baltimore, a city located in the Patapsco valley drainage basin.




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