Geologists, for better or worse, have been wandering the globe for a couple hundred years now, meticulously mapping every outcrop, moraine, fossil bed, and fold they can find. At this point in history we’ve got a pretty good idea of what rocks are where, more or less how they formed, and when. Earth’s history is being teased out thanks to huge (and recent) advances in our understanding of our planet’s dynamics such as plate tectonics and advances in radiometric dating. It’s pretty likely that someone has put a lot of thought into what the heck is going on with the rocks in your backyard; but how can you join in on that contemplation?
Initiatives like the National Science Foundation‘s (NSF) EarthCube are making the geoscience data that scientists have been amassing more and more accessible to anyone with an internet connection. This access to data has many great benefits. Scientists can tie data from seemingly separate fields of study in order to make new leaps in our understanding. In my opinion, one of the most well developed and useful tools to come out of this effort is called Macrostrat which is developed at the University of Wisconsin Madison and funded, like so many scientific wonders of our world, by NSF.
With Macrostrat, users can explore the bedrock geology of the entire world. The work of thousands of geologists is accessible in one interactive and beautiful map. Click any of the different areas of the map (geologists call them ‘units’) and you’re served with a plethora of information that would make our ancestor’s head spin. You can explore the ages of rocks, some billions of years old, understand their origins, sometimes revealing past seas in places now miles high in the sky, and find links to the scientific publications that brought about and leverage these discoveries to tell the history of nearly any place on the globe.
Dive deeper into the site using the Sift tool by following the ‘explore the data’ link and now you’re able to look beyond that first surface layer of bedrock geology and see what exists beneath.
Information like rock type, depositional environment, and what humans have mined or extracted from the rocks any area of North America and select regions beyond can be found. Scroll down a bit further to view the stratigraphic column of the area – what you would find if you could drill down beneath the surface. Another amazing resource, the Paleobiology Database, is tied in at this point, indicating which units have had fossils discovered within them and what types of creatures they were.
I’m from Minnesota, about as far away from the ocean as you can get, but it turns out that my backyard was the site of a sea in the Ordovician period, nearly 500 million years ago. There are even great places to go fossil hunting nearby. Walking to the train in the dead of a Minnesota winter, it is a wonder, and a bit challenging, to imagine this place underwater and swimming with life. Many, many things have happened here. How wonderful to live in a time where those things are accessible to our imagination.
Macrostrat’s potential expands beyond simply exploring the data. With a little bit of programming know how and using the convenient and well documented application programming interface (API) you can use the droves of information that Macrostrat contains in a tool you built yourself. Open source mapping tools like Leaflet and Openlayers can serve as a base for nearly any spatial application and there is no shortage of amazing data to explore and expose. Complete some coding tutorials over at Code Academy and build your own! Or just explore the data using the wonderful tools already out there. Perhaps you’re wondering what was going on in your town 2,000,000 years ago, or maybe you’re headed to somewhere new and would like to know what geologic wonders are waiting for you there. Macrostrat is a great place to start.
I’m currently part of an NSF-funded team developing a mobile app that leverages geoscience databases like Macrostrat to make their information available to you on your phone, wherever you are. The app queries databases for information relevant to a specific area, whether it’s a flight path, road trip, or hiking adventure, and saves it offline so no connection is needed later on in the field. It’s called Flyover Country and it’s available for both Android and iOS. Check it out!