Animation Brings Geology to Life

Not a Mickey Mouse Project

If a picture's worth a thousand words, what's the value of creative computer animation?

When it comes to letting the world know about the geologic processes that created our planet, a group of geoscientists at the University of Colorado believes it can be — no pun intended — earth shattering.

Geologic animation and public information: Call this a marriage made in heaven — and it all started with a family vacation.

Paul Weimer, a professor of geology with the department of geological sciences at the University of Colorado, was traveling with his family through the spectacular geology of the Western U.S. national parks when the idea was born:

What if the parks had short animations to illustrate the geologic evolution of various parks where geology plays a key role in visitors' experiences?

He took that idea back to some like-minded friends and peers at CU, who were looking for a way to take geology to "the people."

Everyone began having a common vision.

"We had done a variety of animations of different things at different scales," Weimer said, "but we felt we could have the greatest impact at the national parks."

Weimer and his colleagues formed the Interactive Geology Project and got busy generating funding sources and making contact with various national parks to determine the level of interest in such a venture.

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If a picture's worth a thousand words, what's the value of creative computer animation?

When it comes to letting the world know about the geologic processes that created our planet, a group of geoscientists at the University of Colorado believes it can be — no pun intended — earth shattering.

Geologic animation and public information: Call this a marriage made in heaven — and it all started with a family vacation.

Paul Weimer, a professor of geology with the department of geological sciences at the University of Colorado, was traveling with his family through the spectacular geology of the Western U.S. national parks when the idea was born:

What if the parks had short animations to illustrate the geologic evolution of various parks where geology plays a key role in visitors' experiences?

He took that idea back to some like-minded friends and peers at CU, who were looking for a way to take geology to "the people."

Everyone began having a common vision.

"We had done a variety of animations of different things at different scales," Weimer said, "but we felt we could have the greatest impact at the national parks."

Weimer and his colleagues formed the Interactive Geology Project and got busy generating funding sources and making contact with various national parks to determine the level of interest in such a venture.

The first project, which is almost complete after about a year of work, centers on the Colorado National Monument in western Colorado.

"Geology is the focus of research at Colorado National Monument, with the goal of teaching visitors about the geology of the area," said team member Ryan Crow. "We worked with William Hood, a national park service geological volunteer, to summarize the last 300 million years of the area's history."

Crow will be presenting a paper titled "Computer Animations in Public Outreach: Geologic Animations in Visitor Centers of National Parks" at the AAPG annual meeting this month.

Co-authors include Weimer (who also is AAPG's current treasurer), John Roesink, Jay Austin, Richard Couture and Byron Boyle with the University of Colorado; William Hood, a Grand Junction, Colo., consultant; and Laura Crossey and Karl Karlstrom with the University of New Mexico.

Also, project team members will be showing the completed animations during the meeting in the BP Visualization Center booth in the exhibits hall.

Telling the Story

Early on in the project, the geologists set four basic goals:

  • To educate the public about geologic processes and evolution of landscapes. The best places to begin such a program, they concluded, are the U.S. national parks.
  • To use existing computer technology to develop geologically accurate animations that illustrate the geologic evolution of national parks.
  • To make the experience at national parks potentially more meaningful with brief visual displays in visitor centers and accompanying books.
  • To make these modules available for use at multiple educational levels.

Traditional geologic displays use static 3-D dioramas and 2-D diagrams, but the group decided to use computer animation for this project. Based on their years of teaching and lecturing, they concluded that the public often has difficulty grasping the vast global context over which geologic changes occur.

Geologic time scales and the violent nature of some geologic processes are challenges, too, they said.

"However, cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that if motion is involved with learning, then there is a significant increase in retention and comprehension with most subjects," Crow said. "Our goal, then, is to design a system where motion is used to increase the public's grasp of geologic processes."

The animations will include such geologic processes as:

  • Continuous climate change.
  • Continuous landscape changes.
  • Continuous change in the processes that affect the landscape like rivers, lakes, sand dunes and oceans.
  • Continuous change in the tectonic forces affecting the formation of the park both locally and regionally.
  • Continuous change in the life forms.
  • Significant portions of geologic history missing between various rock layers.
  • The fairly recent phenomenon of the current landscape.
  • Linking geologic time and the evolution of all these changing factors.

The high quality animations are five to 10 minutes long and will be displayed in the parks' visitor centers. They will include a narration — in laymen's language — summarizing the geology being shown.

The project plans to combine the animations with a series of interactive displays for the parks that will allow the user to display different kinds of surfaces and explore the current geography and geology of the area.

The display also will have 3-D visualization software that allows users to control a fly-over of the national park, where different kinds of map displays are draped over a digital terrain model. These maps include Landsat images, shaded topography and geologic maps with geologic cross sections that can be brought into the area.

The team also plans to construct a stand-alone program that will integrate the animations with additional materials. This will allow users to move between animation, paleogeographic maps, photographs and additional explanatory materials.

This program will be downloadable and available for sale as a CD-ROM.

It's All About Change

Of course, all of this is just a first step — project leaders hope to eventually construct a series of animations of each major geologic period of North America.

Their intent is to illustrate the geologic evolution of North America with an accuracy of two to three million years, from a viewpoint of 50 kilometers in space. These, too, will be used to place each national park into a broader regional context, and illustrate to the viewer the continent's constantly changing nature.

Crow said the team attempts to focus on all but the most sophisticated research of a national park.

"We try not to concern ourselves with Ph.D level arguments, but rather base our research on the literature and local experts, to determine exactly which major points should be shown," Crow said. "We combine that research with the interpretive needs of ea}h park — what do they want to show, what do visitors have an interest in seeing — and compile that into one display."

Weimer added that the team also talked to children.

"Our ultimate goal is to try and change the way geology is taught in public schools, from grade school all the way through the collegiate level," Weimer said. "I've always had the philosophy that if you can show geology through animation, it will hold people's interest.

"Geologists have long used 3-D visualization as a tool for problem solving," he continued, "and we think it is a great way to help the general public understand geologic processes as well."

The initial animation of the Colorado National Monument is almost complete and should be on display at the park by this summer. The animation shows:

  • How the Colorado National Monument has evolved over the last 300 million years.
  • The deposition of the rock units in the area.
  • The formation of the monocline in the park.
  • The recent downcutting of the Colorado River that has produced the current topography.

The team has had discussions with other national parks and currently is in the process of trying to get additional projects under way and secure additional funding, according to Weimer. The second animation will likely focus on the Grand Canyon National Park, where project scientists have already begun research and a working model for the animation.

"We ultimately would like to do a series on half a dozen different parks and custom tailor each display for the needs and resources of each park," Weimer said, and they'll target the national parks with significant visitor numbers — 300,000 to 500,000 per year — and spectacular geology.

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