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Expanding Earth sciences research with Layerscape

Publication date: August 10, 2012

Layerscape seismic activity visualization from Earthquake and Plate Boundaries WWT tourLayerscape seismic activity visualization from Earthquake and Plate Boundaries WWT tourAs Earth scientists study how our planet functions as a system, one of their key technical challenges is the management of the flow—and particularly, the visualization—of research data. From the upper reaches of the atmosphere to Earth's core, Microsoft Research's Layerscape is helping scientists visualize complex data about planet Earth in three-dimensional space and time.

The toolset

“In the past, the way we visualized data was: we created a plot, printed it on a paper, we put it on the wall, we thought about it. Layerscape lets us interact with the data.”

— James Bellingham, chief technologist, MBARI

Layerscape enables scientists to illustrate what their data is doing by connecting a sequence of perspectives and automated transitions. Microsoft Research WorldWide Telescope (WWT) provides the engine for creating these visualizations, facilitating an endless number of possible applications, such as: visualizing historical surface temperature measurements, seismic activity, greenhouse gas diffusion, sea ice extent, wind patterns, and insect biodiversity. Layerscape could be used to track antelope migratory patterns or the movement of Saharan dust as it seeds plankton blooms across the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. It can also be used to create abstract visualizations simply by using coordinate axes.

The Layerscape data transfer tool is built on Microsoft ExcelThe Layerscape data transfer tool is built on Microsoft ExcelThe Layerscape data transfer tool is built on Microsoft Excel, and the WWT Add-in makes it easy to transfer your data from existing Excel spreadsheets into the WWT visualization engine. The link from Excel is dynamic so that anytime you change the data in Excel, the updates will render automatically in Layerscape.

Oceanographers and Earth scientists are using Layerscape to analyze and visualize large, complex data and share their discoveries with the scientific community and the general public as they work to understand the complex interconnections of our planet.

Extending scientific research through technology

James BellinghamJames Bellingham Ocean sciences researchers have traditionally spent a lot of time on the ocean recording first-hand observations. This approach accounts for most of what we know about the oceans today, but most scientists agree that we have only scratched the surface. "We don’t have many ships, and it’s a very big ocean," says James Bellingham, the chief technologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). The MBARI has found a technological solution to human limitations: robots.

Researchers send robotic autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) equipped with sensors into the ocean and the robots transmit data back to the team onshore via satellite. Not only are the AUVs able to access greater portions of the ocean, they can return larger volumes and a wider variety of data than their human counterparts.

Layerscape has provided the team with a way to investigate the increased data sets returned by the AUVs. "Layerscape is becoming one of the tools that we use now for exploring these data sets, which are not just three-dimensional or four-dimensional, but they’re many-dimensional, because there are many different parameters that we’re looking at," Bellingham explains.

Tracking earthquake activity in Arizona

“We have 150 years of earthquakes in an Excel spreadsheet. We brought Layerscape back into the office and showed it to our team here. Three minutes later, they had loaded all of those earthquakes into Layerscape, and we were doing timeline videos, animations

running through, and it

was exciting.”

— Lee Allison, state geologist and director, AZGS

Hundreds of miles from the ocean, the Arizona Geological Survey (AZGS) has been amassing data about a different piece of the geological puzzle: earthquakes. The agency has amassed volumes of information establishing the potential hazards posed by earthquakes. In the past, it has struggled to find a way to communicate the data, but the team used Layerscape’s demonstration tools to develop a presentation in minutes.

The presentation includes a timeline of earthquakes in Arizona and short video clips enticing viewers to go online for a more extensive experience. The team is now using Layerscape to develop a series of pre-packaged tours of iconic locations: a "Virtual Arizona Experience" for the state’s Centennial.

Lee AllisonLee Allison The Arizona earthquake animation has enabled the geologic hazards community to show decision makers where and how frequently earthquakes have occurred over the years. This has caught the attention of many people in the state, says Lee Allison, state geologist at AZGS.

Mark AbbottMark Abbott Assessing the health of the ocean

Just a few states away, faculty members in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University are conducting research into Earth systems, ranging from how ocean currents affect ocean productivity, to the interactions between winds and ocean circulation, to how the circulation of the Earth’s mantle drives undersea volcanoes. Mark Abbott, dean and professor, is studying how physical and biological properties affect sound transmission in the ocean.

“Layerscape offers the opportunity to look at a whole range of variables and overlay them in space and, eventually, in time so you can see how these ocean landscapes change and respond to forces in the environment.”

— Mark Abbott, dean and professor, Oregon State University

Abbott regularly uses a wide variety of underwater sensors to gather data for analysis. His team collects terabytes of data per day. While the team can handle the volume, the complexity and variety of the data sets gathered from individual sensors can present issues. Layerscape can reduce the complexity and provide a clearer picture for researchers, Abbott says.

"I think Layerscape can understand how people and the environment interact," Abbott remarks. For example, Layerscape can identify areas where natural disasters—such as tsunamis, earthquakes, or coastal flooding—are more likely to occur. This critical information can help policymakers and citizens make informed decisions regarding infrastructure, such as where to locate future roads or homes.

Connecting the world

Try LayerscapeScientists have a lot of work ahead of them to develop a deep understanding of our wonderful and mysterious planet. Technology plays a central role in helping the scientific community make progress and Microsoft Research is dedicated to providing support by offering solutions like Layerscape and exploring with those scientists which methods and tools we need to develop next.