Physical Geology                                                          Name:_______________________

lobal tectonics, South American Plate - Stock Image - C016/3712 - ScienLEARNING OBJECTIVES: This project works you through the scientific method. You will:

  • make initial observations,
  • develop a hypothesis,
  • collect data,
  • plot the data in meaningful ways,
  • describe the data,
  • analyze the data, and
  • make interpretations about the processes that are occurring at a specific plate boundary.


Focusing on the western boundary of the South America plate (see image at right), you are going to collect data on earthquakes that have occurred that this specific plate boundary during the past semester (), and then ultimately make an interpretation of the processes occurring along this plate boundary along with  a recommendation for future work. 

Read through the entire assignment prior to starting. The project is divided up into six parts, each part is weighted differently. See grading rubric at the end.

There are various paths or avenues you can work through this assignment. There is no one “correct way” to do this, but we need to make sure to operate within the guidelines of quality science. With that in mind:

  1. Be true to your data. What this means is that your interpretations must be based on the data you have collected, and not the data you think you should have.
  2. When you make choices in how you collect the data, you need to explain/justify the reasons that your process makes scientific sense.


  • Pencil
  • Colored pencils or markers
  • Books and notes
  • Internet access
  • Calculator (optional)
  • Ruler (optional)

NOTE: You will use the Internet only during Part 2, the Data Collection stage of this assignment. Using the Internet for any other part of this assignment will result in a zero.


Start by making some initial observations about the western boundary of the South America plate, and from those, develop a hypothesis regarding what is happening along this plate boundary.

Look at the image of South America on the first page, and make observations features you see in regard to the topography for the western boundary of South America. In your observations, explain the topography in relation to the red plate boundary. Write those below.

Observations (6 pts):

Mapping Earthquakes

Movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates creates faults and causes earthquakes as the lithosphere pushes together, pulls apart, or slides past one another. All plate boundaries have earthquakes associated with their movement. As the movement occurs, the rocks will often break and grind together, releasing vibrations of energy into the ground. The earthquakes on plate boundaries can occur near the ground surface or deep below the ground. The technology we use to detect earthquakes can tell us exactly where the plate boundary occurs below the surface. The image on the right shows two blocks of earth that are sliding against each other. The location at which the rocks actually break during a single event is called the focus of the earthquake. The point on the earth’s surface that is directly above the focus is called the epicenter.

Based on your initial topography observations and the information above. Write a hypothesis for what type of plate boundary you expect for the western boundary of the South America plate. In your hypothesis, state the pattern you expect to see of the earthquakes for this type of plate boundary. Remember, a hypothesis must be something that can be tested to determine if it is true or not.

Hypothesis (4 pts):


Now you are ready to collect data about earthquakes in South America. Before you start, familiarize yourself with the data table on the next page.  Look at the headers at the top of each column. You will need to collect information on the location (latitude, longitude), depth, and magnitude for each earthquake that has occurred. You will also record the dates of these events. You will only be examining a portion of the plate boundary; the extent of your research area will have these bounds: western boundary: 88° W, eastern boundary: 55° W, northern boundary: 19°S, and southern boundary: 39° S.

IMPORTANT: It is up to you how much data you want to collect. You do not have to fill in the entire table, but you want to make sure that you have a true representation of the data. What does that mean? Imagine if someone was trying to figure out what percent of University Park students wear skirts once a week. Would it be accurate to just ask a portion of the female population? No, because the question is what percent of students, not just female students wear skirts. Should the person ask an even amount of female and male students? Actually, no, because University Park is 61% female, so the survey should be made up of 61% female and 39% male. Does the student have to ask every single student at University Park? No, at some point, you should start to see a consistent result. You will decide how many earthquakes to record (HINT: at least 20).

Instructions on how to collect the data on earthquakes:

  1. Start by going to:
  2. In the Basic Options section:
    1. For magnitude, choose “Custom” and set your minimum magnitude to 4.

(NOTE: You may decide to change this later, but this is a good starting point).

  • For date and time, choose “custom” and set the start date as the first day of this semester.
  • Now, you will filter the data to just include the region you are interested in. In the Advanced Options section, you will set your geographic region based on the information at the start of this section. NOTE: When longitude is west of the prime meridian, you need to write it as a negative number, and the more negative number is more west. For example, you will type -88 for the west value and -55 for the east value. Similarly, when southern latitudes are also written as negative numbers.
  • Click “Search”.

Question: How many earthquakes does your search bring up? (Look in the upper left under “Search Results”) (1 pt)                                

Now you need to come up with a data sampling strategy because you do not want to have to record and map all of these data. A pattern will emerge before you get to that point.  Looking at the earthquake, decide if you want to sample the data based on an even distribution spatially (like trying to pick earthquakes that are equally spaced from one another) or if you want to sample based on frequency (like selecting more earthquakes in an area that has a lot of earthquakes relative to an area that may just have one). Justify your decision below. Remember, to keep your hypothesis in mind(6 pts):

Record at least 20 events data in this table. It is up to you how many you collect (13 pts).

Event #DateLatitude (°S)Longitude (°W)Depth (km)Magnitude (M)

PART 3: Presenting the data on a map (15 pts)

With the various components of each earthquake collected, plot these data on the map of South America on the next page. CAUTION: You first need to decide, what would be more meaningful to plot based on testing your hypothesis: the earthquake magnitude or the earthquake depth? Explain your decision (and you cannot choose both) (6 pts):

Now, based on your decision, choose three colors.

If you are plotting the earthquakes based on magnitude, then divide your earthquake magnitudes into three categories and choose a color for each category.

These categories should be:

1) Earthquakes with a magnitude of 4-5,

2) Earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 5 and up to 6, and

3) greater than magnitude 6.

If you have decided to plot your earthquakes based on depth, then choose a color for each of these three categories:

1) Earthquakes with a depth < 100 km,

2) Earthquakes with depths between 100 km and 250 km, and

3) Earthquakes with depths > 250 km.

On the map provided, plot the epicenter of each earthquake (from the table) as a dot using your chosen color. Include the magnitude or depth next to each point. (9 pts)

PART 4: ANALYSIS (20 pts)

You are now ready to analyze your data. Your objective is to determine what type of pattern (if any) exists in the region. If a pattern is not emerging for you or you notice gaps in your data collection, considering collecting additional earthquake data. Add those additional earthquakes below. Mark them on your map with a different star symbol, but the same color-scheme. At this point, you may want to consider contouring your data (like how a topographic map is drawn). This is totally optional, if you decide to do this and need guidance you access the Internet at this point to view this video:

Additional Data:

Event #DateLatitude (°S)Longitude (°W)Depth (km)Magnitude (M)

Look at your collected data. Sometimes, when doing science, you collect more data than is actually useful. What data did you collect that ended up being not that helpful for your hypothesis? Explain.    (4 pts)

You have started by plotting either magnitude or depth on a map of latitude and longitude, but that is just one way to represent the data. On the next page is blank graph paper. What else would be helpful to graph to test your hypothesis?

  • Choose from the following for the X-axis: latitude, longitude, or distance from plate boundary, and
  • For the Y-axis: choose magnitude or depth.
  • I recommend using the long edge of the graph paper as your X-axis.

Be sure to label your axes with titles and values, and include a title to your graph. (6 pts)

Explain below what you have decided to graph and why you think this could be helpful to your hypothesis. (4 pts)

1 Free Graph Paper Templates Word PDFs – Word Exc

Making observations on your data:

Now that you have data plotted in two ways (one on a map and one on a graph), provide observations about these data and any patterns that you see from both plots. (6 pts)

Remember, you are not yet interpreting the data. Just describe what you see based on the variables you selected.


Now, interpret your observations about the data in regard to the western margin of the South America plate. These should be complete sentences about a process or series of processes that are occurring at this plate boundary. Create a model/drawing to show what is occurring and how your data (the earthquakes and topography) drew you to draw that model for this plate boundary. Remember, your interpretations must be consistent with the data that YOU have collected. Revisit your hypothesis and explain the validity of your hypothesis.

PART 6: FUTURE WORK (15 pts)

Describe possible future work for this study. Be sure to use complete sentences and explain why. Here are some writing prompts:

  • How could your study be improved?
  • What assumptions did you make in your study?
  • What additional data would you like to add to your study?
  • What new questions do you have about this plate boundary?
Excellent                                  (full credit)Needs work             (partial credit) Not Present                         (no credit)Total Possible Pts (of 100)
HypothesisObservations and hypothesis are present and are tied to one anotherMissing observations or hypothesis or not clear how they are relatedNo hypothesis stated10
Data CollectionData is sufficiently collected and for proper location and time frame. Justification provided.Data is either insufficient, wrong location, or wrong time frame AND/OR justification not given.Data was not collected and justification was not provided.20
Presenting the dataData are plotted accurately and according to the three categories. Explain for decision was given.Not all data are plotted accurately or data plotted are not appropriate AND/OR explanation for decision was not givenData was not plotted nor was explanation for decision given.15
AnalysisDemonstrates where essential information needs to be includedHas tried to evaluate the data, but has not added anything meaningfulNo analysis performed20
InterpretationInterpretations are consistent with the data. Model sketch was drawn and clearly described.Interpretations occur but are not consistent with data AND/OR model sketch was not drawn and/or not described.No interpretation present20
Future WorkHas identified where gaps in research or avenues for future work existsFuture work suggestions do not align with presented findingsNo future work submitted15

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