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This month, Geoff Phelps from USGS Geology, Minerals, Energy and Geophysics in Menlo Park, CA describes the challenge of visualizing subsurface data on a virtual globe. 

Subsurface data includes earthquake hypocenters, borehole interpretations, seismic sections, tectonic plates, water tables, aquifers, and geologic units!


One possibility is to use the NASA WorldWind virtual globe.

  • There is currently no easy way for the user to add/subtract their own data
  • There are no visualization tools that allow the user to modify the objects properties (color, lighting, etc)
  • There is currently no subsurface viewpoint capability (“views from inside the swimming pool”)

Other virtual globes (Google Earth, Cesium, etc.)?

View the pdf

If you have experience or ideas on this topic, comment on the forum or email


  1. I've looked into using TerriaJS for GroundWater model visualization, which uses Cesium below the hood.  Here are some 1 minute videos of groundwater models done with TerriaJS, by NICTA, now CSIRO/Data61 (Australian Government):

    I'm pretty jazzed about TerriaJS as a powerful, open, government-funded, virtual globe environment.  You can consume OGC services, ESRI service, shapefiles, geojson, CZML, and more.  

    You can check out how to deploy and use here:

    and the code repo is here (very active!):

    The Australian National Map is a nice TerriaJS deployment endpoint:



  2. Unknown User (


    LDEO may have some of the functionality you want.  Although these links focus on oceanographic data, if they can plot subsurface structure from seismic lines, the "how" may be portable to visualization on land.  And geomapapp works with NASA worldwind.

  3. We've used the quick-and-dirty approach of showing raster graphics (.png, .jpg) as cross-sections in Google Earth, generated using the tool here:

    I think it fares well in the cost-benefit comparison vs more complicated tools. Here is an example of electrical geophysical data in Arizona:

    Our intent is to publish this file as a standalone data release (with an accompanying .xml metadata file).





  4. They may not win the most style points, but ArcScene and ArcGlobe both support some pretty decent 3D depth/height renderings for raster and vector data straight out of the box.

    I've produced 3D virtual images for projects, just using field values and tweaking some of the display options:


    Both of these ship stock with the USGS ArcDesktop installation and ArcScene supports hillshading, extrusion, lighting, etc. to help with trying to create compelling imagery for data.

    ArcGlobe offers something akin to the Google Earth experience, with a little more support for displaying geospatial datasets.

  5. Thanks Drew. Yes, ArcGIS does have some 3D subsurface capability, which works reasonably well for local areas, but unfortunately it is not a virtual globe. The idea here was to take the virtual globe approach and add global-scale geologic structures (at first), like geologic plates with epicenters, to the globe to present the user with the global picture. Sometimes local areas in 3D can be rather abstract, especially if the user is not familiar with the area. To my knowledge ArcGlobe does not allow subsurface displays of vector elements.