Weekend Wandering 10: Reading the ABCs from Space


Back in December of last year, one of the most visually interesting of NASA Earth Observatory’s Features was released – Reading the ABCs from Space. Initially, it sounds a bit juvenile, like being back in Primary School, but when you start looking at the satellite images and the captions below, one becomes more and more engrossed (at least, I did!)

It got me thinking about how to use a resource like this for more than its face value. Right now, my students are working through constructive and destructive geologic processes that form the various types of landforms around the world and it occurred to me that they should be able to make some connections between what they are learning and what the various images show. It needs more thought and a more robust framework. but it’s an idea that will simmer quietly in the background between now and when I present the course again next year.

As my wife Laurie said, “There’s a children’s book in this!” Hmmmmmmm.


Journey to the Centre of the Earth

 BBC Journey to the Centre of the Earth Have you read Jules Verne’s landmark Victorian novel? If not, as a geographer, you must! Add it to your summer reading list.

In the meantime, check out the BBC’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth webpage. It’s built on the same principles as the How Big is Space page and Into the Ocean Depths and provides a somewhat interactive view into Earth’s lithosphere alongside the ocean depths (to 11 000m, that is). The Lithosphere continues right down to the core.

Along the way you’ll learn about the depths of Lakes Superior and Baikal, the effects of nitrogen narcosis, the depth of the Chilean miners (OMG,) as well as the deepest mines and caves, the depth of the Grand Canyon, the bottoms of all the oceans and Xenophyophores (look that one up!). You’ll pass through all the layers including the Mohorovićič Discontinuity (saying/writing the “Moho”, just doesn’t cut it!). Thank goodness, the scale changes as you go deeper or you could be at this all day!

Besides it edutainment value, “Journey” certainly reinforces the fact that we have barely scratched the surface of what we know about Earth (pun intended!). Enjoy and “Discover what lies beneath!”

Nepal Earthquake

Sermathang playground and school after the nepal earthquake

 Over the past 12 years, our school – St. John’s-Kilmarnock School – has developed a very close relationship with two villages in the Himalayan foothills northeast of Kathmandu: Sermathang and Thakani. Every two years a team of teachers and senior students travel to Nepal to help maintain the schools: building latrines, refurbishing classrooms and playground areas, painting, and, perhaps most importantly, assisting financially with salaries for teachers. The whole school gets behind the fundraising, 100% of which goes directly to assisting the schools (and none towards the trip itself – those fees are entirely paid for by the families involved). This year we raised over $20,000 to assist the schools over the next two years until we return again.

Sermathang school after the earthquake

So, you can imagine our immense sadness to learn of the impact of the earthquake on the two villages. Both villages and their schools have been razed by the initial earthquake and subsequent aftershocks. We have not yet heard news of deaths, however those with whom we’ve formed close relationships have, as far as we know, survived. Sermathang has begun to receive aid: one helicopter drop and very limited supplies via jeep as the road is near impassible. The residents are currently living in makeshift tents. Thakani residents have had no aid as of yet as they seem to be completely cut off. Update: Food supplies to last a week have been air-lifted into Thakani, thank goodness.

As a school, we have begun a re-newed fundraising campaign to assist our friends in Nepal. Their losses have been complete. With so little to rely on for income, they will be destitute before long. As a community, we have the resources to make a significant contribution to their immediate daily needs and to their long-term re-building projects. In fact, members of our Trek Nepal team have already started the process of collecting aid and making arrangements to have it transported, through various connections with airline industry and people in Nepal, to Sermathang, and, hopefully, to Thakani. The best way to contribute is through financial donations, but they have have also been collecting specific items that are inexpensive to transport, for example, servings of dried soup, water purification tablets and tarpaulins.

If you are so moved to assist with the rebuilding of the schools and villages, then please consider a donation. Small or large, every little bit helps. You can donate directly to the SJK Nepal Fund through CanadaHelps. At the web page, please select “Other” and add a note to say the funds are for SJK Nepal Fund. 100% of the money received by SJK will be directed to assisting the two villages, Sermathang and Thekani.

UPDATE: We now have direct link for donations to the Nepal Schools’ Rebuild Fund.

Donations can also be made to the Canadian Red Cross, UNICEF and the Mennonite Central Committee. This money will assist people across Nepal. As well, donations made prior to May 25 will be matched by the Canadian Government. Please be aware, though – the matching funds, while directed to Nepal, are not necessarily given to the agency you donated to. Rather, it is used at the government’s discretion and may be donated to an outside or international charity for work in Nepal.

Please consider helping, if only a little. If everyone in Canada were to give even $1 – that’s $30 million more than our government has pledged! And, let’s face it, how much is $1 or even $10 to the average Canadian? For more information about Sermathang and Thakani, and updated photos, please visit the SJK Trek Nepal Facebook page.

For more information in Earthquakes, please visit GeoKnow.net > Lithosphere > Earthquakes.

Weekend Wandering 8 – App Review: Earth Primer

EarthPrimerI’m not usually in the habit of reviewing apps, but when Earth Primer came along, I was excited enough by its prospects to give it a try. I must admit to hesitating at the $9.99 price tag, and was thinking I would not bother. [Aside: It’s a shame, really, that we’ve become so highly price-conscious of apps that cost more than a couple of bucks, but that’s the way apps have gone. In fact, I was recently burned after paying $12.99 for an Oxford Atlas that I learned wouldn’t work after upgrading to iOS 8 and that Oxford would not be updating the app – annoying to say the least!] So, in the interests of full-disclosure, I am reviewing a free copy of the app thanks to the author, Chaim Gingold.

Let me start off by saying this is one cool app. I can’t imagine how much I would have loved to “play” with this as a 9 to 11 year old. Over my 20+ years of teaching, I’ve always maintained that if anyone could build learning into a “video game” (then computer game, then app) then we would have the most knowledgeable students around – Earth Primer goes a long way towards fulfilling that notion.

Earth Primer has four “chapters” or areas of learning: 1. Interior, 2. Surface, 3. Water and 4. Biomes. Beginning at the “Core” we work our way out to the “Crust” with “Tectonic Collisions” and “Hotspots” as well. This is well-thought-out with a logical progression of understanding. The convection current animations in the Mantle are effective, so much much so, that I miss them in subsequent animations of “Subduction”, for example. However, beyond a quick mention, where’s the Seafloor Spreading? Rifts are there and a reference to the East African Rift, but it’s difficult to talk about tectonic processes without a page on mid-oceanic ridges and, for example, Iceland. Also, I would have liked to see a connection made between the location of earthquakes, volcanoes and plate margins. What a great animation opportunity!

Another error of omission is an “Atmosphere” component. While some of the atmosphere concepts are covered elsewhere, for example, “Evaporation” is under “Water”, and one can change the temperatures of terrains and add rainfall, there is no treatment of the Sun-Earth energy balance that drives many of Earth’s EarthPrimerGalciersurface processes (and is connected to climate change which is mentioned a few times), there is nothing about climate as a whole except being casually mentioned in the various “Biomes”.

I do like how each chapter is designed, however, around an overview illustration. As well, the Biomes are arranged on a grid from cold to hot and dry to wet – nicely done and great for making connections. But, I miss a map reference when place names are mentioned. This is particularly apparent in Biomes; it appears Biomes could use a bit more work in this area as well as the addition of some photographs, as the animations are poor; e.g. Taiga shows only patchy areas of coniferous forest rather than great swathes of forest as it characteristic of the biome.

The other point of note is that Earth Primer defaults to a strictly linear path through the app. At first, this confused and frustrated me, but then again, I’m not a gamer and this app is made for 9 to 11 year-olds who would be more inclined to follow a linear route and complete tasks to get to the next “level”. While a linear approach seems counter-intuitive to today’s ways of dynamic learning, I understand that knowledge builds on knowledge. If desired, full access to all areas can be toggled on in the iOS Settings screen.

EarthPrimer-SandboxThe interactivity of the animations is wonderful, however, and is Earth Primer’s greatest strength. Each terrain responds to the earth process you introduce: raise/lower bedrock, add/remove sediment, wind, rain, raise/lower sea levels, raise/lower temperature – the permutations and combinations are immeasurable!

One area to spend some time in is the Sandbox. You start by selecting a terrain model. From there, the sky is the limit as to what you do with it. Drop the temperature, add a glacier, raise the sea level, add sand and wind – with each change the animation responds accordingly based on the principles of earth science. As you reduce the temperature, for example, even the tree types change from Tropical Broadleaf, to Temperate Deciduous then to Boreal. What a great way to have students design a terrain then talk you through the changes they make and the results of those changes. It would be nice, though, to see some tectonic sandbox terrains and tools.

Overall, Earth Primer is an intriguing app. It offers an incredible number of interactive animations that explore a large gamut of earth science processes. Animated trees and rocks are simplified into geometric shapes, but are very effective in their presentation. What I find frustrating, though, is that, while the diversity of topics is there for the most part, the depth of presentation and knowledge is, at times, lacking I know, it’s for 9-11 year olds, but there is enough potential built into app for right up to high school.

Further to examples of even greater potential mentioned above, the app explores erosion, transportation and sedimentation but only mentions weathering. And, while river deltas come at the end of “Streams” (under “Surface, not “Water”), it ignores the fact that erosion, transportation and sedimentation have been presented and only gives a still satellite view of the Nile Delta. To me, it seems like an ideal place to use an interactive animation to allow users to create a delta, having it form and grow with the different grades of materials introduced previously in “Sediments” sorting themselves downslope.

Here are summaries of what I’ve found in these first few dips into the app.


  • Interactive: it will get kids creating volcanoes and rift valleys, causing erosion with rainfall, etc. They will see the effects of warmer temperatures on glaciers, for example.
  • Animations and visuals are very well done adding to the interactive nature of the app. To be able to rotate and zoom visuals add more rain or higher temperatures, even build a glacier, are all truly amazing.
  • Sandbox: Using a variety of earth processes, although not complete, students can create terrains that they can then explain based on their learning.


  • Too shallow in places; e.g Students can create volcanoes, but there is no deeper level to learn more about types of volcanoes, features, location, etc.
  • Too simple: No mention of the Rock Cycle which is a great tie in with the “Interior”, nor climate, not sealer spreading. Mountain-building is limited to pushing up terrain with your finger in “Surface” rather than pushing plates together to cause folding, which could easily be done in “Interior” under “Continental Convergence”.
  • Use precise language in more places; e.g. Instead of “mountains might break down into sand”, the terms weathering and erosion should be introduced, perhaps with a glossary or simple a click on the word brings up a bubble with the definition.
  • Grammatical Errors or typos: e.g. “Volcanoes emit lava which cool [sic] and grow the hard shell of rock…”. Also, no mention is made of  the difference between lava and magma.
  • Earth Science Errors – I noticed some errors perhaps due to the app’s simplistic nature; e.g. at the San Andreas Fault, Earth Primer shows the North American plate moving southeast and the Pacific Plate moving northwest – this is only true in a broad, relative sense. What is actually happening is the North American Plate is moving west-southwest while the Pacific Plate is moving northwest but at a faster rate..
    Another example is with Groundwater: “If the [ground]water hits a dead end it will fill it up, creating a kind of underground lake.” It is simplistic learning like this that needs to be unlearned and re-learned correctly later on in school. It’s not a lake, but an aquifer: an underground layer of rock, sand  or soil saturated with water.

Next Steps:

  • While the soundtrack can be turned off under iOS > Settings, the sound effects cannot.
  • Add a Search function. If a student wants to go to “Erosion” they must guess that it’s under “Water > Streams”, yet erosion can also be the result of wind and glaciers and it is not found under “Sedimentation”.
  • Add map references to places named.
  • Add a slider to change the speed at which animations happen. Although they are meant to represent a thousand years per second, the clouds begin to look like pinballs bouncing around the animations.
  • Add more topics; e.g. some basic earth science topics such as the Rock Cycle and Flood Plains are not mentioned even though magma, lava and meanders are.
  • Add further, more in-depth learning. At $9.99, the price seems steep for this simple level of learning.

So, the bottom line question is this: Is Earth Primer worth the $9.99 being charged? While I applaud the work that has gone into this app, I feel there are too many missed opportunities and errors of omission to make it worth the full price; $3.99 perhaps, Even $4.99, but not $9.99. Earth Primer calls itself “A science book for playful people” – that I agree with! Does it replace a textbook for younger students? While some of the topics are covered at that age, most are not, so Earth Primer becomes a great bridge to further learning. Overwhelmingly, though, Earth Primer is certainly a great way to introduce kids to the dynamics of earth processes.

World’s Biggest Fracking Quake?

An excellent article on fracking, providing clarity of an issue mired in politics, innuendo and misinformation.

The Mountain Mystery

“Did Alberta Just Break a Fracking Earthquake World Record?” This is the headline in The Tyee, an online independent magazine focused on western Canada, and it seems the paper thinks so. The Tyee’s coverage of a big fracking earthquake in northern Alberta is mostly accurate, although a larger quake was reported in Oklahoma in September 2014. The Canadian shake measured 4.4 while the Sooner State’s quake was 4.5. An even larger one is alleged and implicated in an injury lawsuit in Oklahoma. I’ll have more about that in a moment.

Readers of this blog are aware of fracking. Hydraulic fracturing forces reluctant oil and gas out of the ground. The technology was invented half a century ago (1947, actually) but grew out of much earlier fracturing schemes, dating back to at least 1865 when nitroglycerin torpedoes were dropped into shallow Pennsylvania wells to “loosen up” the rocks, encouraging oil…

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Canada’s “Burgess Shales”: Site 2

Researchers from the Royal Ontario Museum are busy drilling, chiselling and carefully dislodging one well-preserved fossil after another at a recently discovered site in the Rocky Mountains. (Courtesy Royal Ontario Museum)

Researchers from the Royal Ontario Museum are busy drilling, chiselling and carefully dislodging one well-preserved fossil after another at a recently discovered site in the Rocky Mountains. (Courtesy Royal Ontario Museum)

Too few Canadians realize how significant Canada is for understanding how life unfolded on Earth. The rocks under our feet are home to some of the most significant fossil finds and fossil troves in the world: Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta; Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia; the Burgess Shales in Yoho National Park in BC; and Miguasha Park, QC – all have been designated World Heritage Sites for the fossils found there and each helps to write a different chapter of what Earth was like when the respective strata were laid down.

Other significant sites, that do not (yet) have World Heritage Status include Mistaken Point, Newfoundland, the Tumbler Ridge dinosaur trackway in BC, and the Milk River Badlands in Alberta plus a number of other sites scattered across the Prairies and Ontario (and, no doubt, many more in the Arctic yet to be discovered). As well, Canada is home to some of the world’s leading paleontological institutes: the Royal Tyrrell Museum, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum (the ROM) and the Canadian Museum of Nature. We are a fossil nation! (For a more complete list, have a look at the Courtenay (BC) Museum’s Canadian Fossil Trail).

Now, add to this mix a second site of “Burgess Shale” strata just south of Yoho in Kootenay National Park’s Marble Canyon – the point of this post!

As Canadians, we are known for not blowing our own horn and I think this to our disadvantage at times. Of course, it’s also the price we  pay living next to a behemoth wIth a media machine that thoroughly mythologizes their culture (and science) which completely overwhelms we in the “51st state”. So our kids grow up reading National Geographic, rarely seeing  what our own nation has to offer, except through the eyes of Canadian Geographic, which, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, doesn’t carry the same cachet or mystique as NG does with students – but I’ll save that discussion for another post.

Back to the point of this post… Ivan Semeniuk has written a piece for the Globe & Mail about the “new” (now a few years old) fossil location in Kootenay, equal to, if not more significant than, the Burgess Shales 40km to the north: 500 million years ago, this critter had a really bad day. No, this site doesn’t contain the “sexy” fossils of T. rex or its pals, but these new finds chronicle what is called the “Cambrian explosion” – the huge diversification of life that occurred in the Cambrian Period. In a geological moment– some 20 million years – virtually all the animal body plans found on Earth today evolved. The Burgess Shales and these new strata at Marble Canyon provide the snapshots though time that help palaeontologists understand this progression of evolution.

Semeniuk points out that fossils from this era are particularly well-preserved. Due to the chemistry of seawater at the time, not only are shells and exoskeletons preserved, but soft tissues have been captured in the rock allowing for much more detailed analysis.

The value of this article, in particular, is all the “bits” that come with it: a video, descriptions of how palaeontologists work, visualizations of the critters being found and a geologic time line – all helpful for gaining a greater understanding of the work that goes on behind the scenes of fossil digs, and ideal for armchair palaeontologists of all ages!

For more on Geologic Time and Palaeontology, visit GeoKnow.net > Lithosphere

[Aside: Rather ironically, I came across this Globe & Mail article in a National Geographic Blog!]