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US Geological Survey Delivers 3-D Science with Web-Based Technology

Scientists have always struggled to find an appropriate communication technology that can present three-dimensional data, facilitate dynamic analysis, and encourage on-the-fly interactivity. In the recent past, scientific visualization has increased the scientist's ability to visualize information, but it has not provided the interactive environment necessary for rapidly changing the model or for viewing the model in ways not predetermined by the visualization specialist.

Virtual Reality Modeling Language

Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML 2.0) is a new environment for visualizing 3-D information spaces and is accessible through the Internet with current browser technologies. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are using VRML as a scientific visualization tool to help convey complex scientific concepts to various audiences. Kevin W. Laurent, computer scientist, and Maura J. Hogan, technical information specialist, have created a collection of VRML models available through the Internet at "Virtual Earth Science".

"Recent Earthquakes" Was One of First Applications Implemented on USGS Website

One of the first VRML applications implemented through the USGS web is a model called "Recent Earthquakes", that is created in real-time based on the latest significant earthquakes from around the world as reported by the USGS's National Earthquake Information Center. Even though this application uses a small sample of earthquakes, the resulting model still conveys the concept that earthquakes tend to occur along plate boundaries; an effective visualization to accompany any discussion of plate tectonics. When demonstrated for school tours and public exhibits, this model was especially well received. Students, parents, and teachers commented on the model's use of real-time data, its accessibility through the Internet, and the ability to examine the model from any perspective.

"The students I've worked with are really drawn to the VRML models," said Maura Hogan, "The combination of the computer, the Internet, and highly illustrative graphics captures their imagination and their interest."

Another application, "Mount St. Helens: Before and After" uses USGS digital elevation models (DEMs) to create virtual terrains of the volcano before and after its 1980 eruption. The result is a model that helps convey the immense volume of the mountain that was ejected in the eruption.

Working with Michael P. Ryan, USGS volcanologist, Laurent and Hogan developed several models that use three-dimensional earthquake locations to depict a volcano's internal "plumbing system." This plumbing system is the movement of magma inside a volcano. One of the most recent models is of the island of Hawaii and focuses on the area containing Mauna Loa, Kilauea, and Loihi. This model represents the location of over 27,000 earthquake events recorded over a period of almost 30 years (1969-1997) and allows the user to animate the series of events over time.

"Using VRML allows us to render complex data sets in an environment where the scientist can examine the data in ways previously impossible," explains Kevin Laurent, "The scientist's ability to move from visualization to decision support is compelling."

VRML is a valuable modeling technology that can enhance the communication of complex scientific concepts. As a web-enabled technology, citizens can access these information products from any Internet connection and interact with the data as a 3-D information space.


Kevin W. Laurent, USGS, 703/648-7139 ( and Maura J. Hogan, USGS, 703/648-4348 (