Big Idea 5: To understand (deep) time and the scale of space, models and maps are necessary

The use of models is fundamental to all of the Earth sciences. Maps and models:

  1. aid in the understanding of aspects of the Earth system that are too big or small for direct observation, or where observation is not possible; and
  2. help make complex systems comprehensible through strategic simplification.

When compared to the size and age of the universe, humanity is a speck in space and a blip in time; models assist in the comprehension of time and space at both sub-microscopic and immense scales. For example:

  1. Much of scientists’ understanding of the inner workings of our planet is derived from mathematical modeling. It is not possible to directly measure the movement below Earth’s surface, but modeling of convection currents brings us closer to the true nature of these monumental geologic phenomena.
  2. The observation of natural phenomena today, such as deposition along a streambed, is critical for interpreting the geologic record. But for processes that operate on much larger, slower scales, modeling within the lab is required. The formation of mountain ranges, such as the Appalachians, is better understood by examining the effects of stress and strain in the laboratory..
  3. What is the effect of a two-kilometer-thick (1.2-mile-thick) glacier on the terrain? In addition to changes related to deposition, the shear weight of such an object depresses the continental mass. Understanding this compression—and the rebound that occurs upon the glaciers retreat—is improved through modeling in the laboratory.