A California paleontologist has created an interactive map that allows people to see how far their hometowns have moved over 750 million years of continental drift.
The online map, designed by Ian Webster, features a range of tools that also make it easy to discover more about the Earth, such as where the first reptiles lived or when the first flower bloomed.
“It shows that our environment is dynamic and can change,” Webster, 30, told CNN. “The history of Earth is longer than we can conceive, and the current arrangement of plate tectonics and continents is an accident of time. It will be very different in the future, and Earth may outlast us all.”
Webster built the map as a web application that sits on top of another map which visualizes geological models created by geologist and paleogeographer Christopher Scotese. Scotese’s models describe plate tectonic development since 750 million years ago, not long after green algae first evolved in the Earth’s oceans.
Webster’s site also utilizes GPlates, a software used by geologists to visualize plate tectonic reconstructions and associated data through geological time.
Webster’s map visualization lets users enter their location and then plugs that location into plate tectonic models. The result is that users can see where towns and cities were located hundreds of millions of years ago. For example, you can see where New York City was located on the Pangea supercontinent.
“My software ‘geocodes’ the user’s location and then uses (Scotese’s) models to run their location backwards in time,” Webster said. “I built the interactive globe visualization and the geocoding and GPates integration myself so that people could plug in their own locations.”
When searching a location on the map, the website’s 3D rotatable globe will point out where on Earth that area was located million of years ago. The map will even show users what dinosaurs used to live nearby in the area they search.
The map illustrates complex and interesting scientific data in an interactive and easy-to-use way so teachers, professors, and anyone else interested in the history and science of Earth can learn, Webster said.
“It is meant to spark fascination and hopefully respect for the scientists that work every day to better understand our world and its past,” he said. “It also contains fun surprises, for example how the US used to be split by a shallow sea, the Appalachains used to be very tall mountains comparable to the Himalayas, and that Florida used to be submerged.”