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Field mapping for the digital age

Students in the field

Adler deWind reports on an exciting new collaborative initiative aimed at updating the traditional mapping exercise using new technology.

Geoscientist 20.7 July 2010

Many readers of Geoscientist will be acutely aware of the demise of traditional field mapping skills in university geology departments around the globe. In an attempt to help reverse this trend, and improve the knowledge base in practical fieldwork skills for future generations, Glasgow-based consultancy Midland Valley launched its Field Mapping Initiative (FMI) in 2008. The Initiative has brought eight leading university geoscience departments together and aims to develop close integration between the traditional skills of field mapping (as taught at undergraduate and postgraduate levels) and the use of computer-based modelling techniques to enhance

Midland Valley, which describes itself as a world leader in the field of structural geology and the development of analytical geological modelling tools, donated multi-user floating licenses of their Move™ software and support packages (worth over £500,000) to each department. The universities involved act now as a consortium with the company, developing teaching and support materials to help improve field mapping training and to integrate more traditional teaching methods with digital modelling and analysis. This new training material will soon be distributed to more than 150 university departments who are also using free copies of Move™ in their teaching and research programmes.

Roddy Muir of Midland Valley told Geoscientist: “The Midland Valley Field Mapping Initiative grew from the recognition that good field mapping training is a vital skill for all geoscientists, because skills learned in the field are transferred to model building and digital interpretations in academia and in industry. The best way to develop these 3D skills is to train students in both the construction and interpretation of geological maps and cross-sections in the field, with students observing and recording data and using this to build an understanding of the geology in 3D. We all did this using paper maps and notebooks; but the world is changing and there is much to be gained by introducing this software to aid visualisation, model-building and analysis further “upstream”.”

The journey so far…

In early 2009, members of the Field Mapping Initiative met at Midland Valley’s Glasgow offices for their second consortium workshop. They discussed how they had been using the software with their students, and shared their experiences of integrating IT into the curriculum over the previous year. Many brought examples of their student’s field and classwork - ranging from simple 2D section construction and restoration to full 3D model-building and analysis.

Says Muir: “The most useful aspect of the meeting proved to be the discussion of shared experiences of how members have used the software in their classes so far: what exercises they devised and what presentations, datasets and workflows were successful. In particular, the meeting provided opportunity to share experiences of how the students responded to using modern technology in field mapping as a teaching tool.”

Maps used for the exercises

Applying the software

In the universities of Milan and Milano-Bicocca, Professors Fabrizio Berra and Stefano Zanchetta have been teaching geological cross-section construction to first degree students, using field mapping and exercises within 2DMove™2. The departments developed two simple exercises for students to check and improve precision in their construction of geological sections with the aid of validation tools in 2DMove™.

Bachelor degree students are firstly trained on the creation of geological sections from simple maps, quickly moving over to working with real geological maps with deformed (faulted and folded) sedimentary successions from a range of environmental settings. Following that, students are introduced to 2DMove™, where two simple exercises are selected from Powell1 (A, 9.7.1 and B, 14.0.1).

Screen Grab 1

  • Exercise A was mainly focused on the collection of data from the geological map and the geometric reconstruction of a geological cross-section.
  • Exercise B was mainly focused on the restoration of the cross section.

Exercise A

Before using 2DMove™, students first drew a cross section by hand. They scanned in the hand-drawn geological cross sections before importing them into the software using the following workflow.
  1. Georeference and upload the geological map.  "Screen Shot 1", above)
  2. Digitise contour lines and geological boundaries.
  3. Upload a trace of the section, geo-referenced with respect to the map.
  4. Upload a DEM and project the geological boundaries on it with the inclined shear algorithm.

Screen Grab 2

5.  Construct support lines for the projection of geological data (i.e. connection of intersection of geological surface with contour lines) placed at the correct altitude. (see Screen Shot 2, above)
6. Collect the intersection of the section plane with the lines from the map (no attitude data were present but how to project them was explained).
7. Upload geological section drawn by hand.
8. Comparison of the “hand-drawn” section with the data collected in the software and re-drawing of the sections as necessary
9. Restoration of the sections iteratively, with correction of the hand-made section.

The workflow took approximately five hours (with about 15 students) over two consecutive days. The students managed to learn the main function of the software relatively quickly and rapidly understood its utility as a tool to improve the precision of geological cross sections.

Exercise B

The students used 2DMove™ to draw the geological section and then to retro-deform it. The iterative process of retro-deformation and correction of the geological section improved the precision and coherence of the geological cross section.

Stefano Zanchetta says: “The opportunity to check the precision of hand drawn sections with computer-analysis was greatly appreciated by all the students who learnt the basic functions quickly and easily, so the results are encouraging. The hand-made geological cross section, even if relatively good, turned out to be pretty imprecise, mainly in terms of the position of the tie points. Furthermore, the retro-deformation of the cross sections highlighted again the geometrically incompatible solutions drawn in the hand made sections.”

Exercise B (1)

Exercise B (2)

Meanwhile, back in Britain the University of Birmingham has been using Move™, along with ArcGIS and Adobe Illustrator for classes with their undergraduate students. These software packages are being integrated into classes in three main ways:
  • First year structural students interact with simple 3D block models.
  • Second year structural students explore restoration techniques.
  • Third year mapping students use the software packages to aid their analysis and communication.

The idea is to assist in the understanding of 3D visualisation for first-year students, and to introduce them to Move™. It is hoped that by interacting with these models students will gain a better geometrical understanding of geological structures. This improved geometrical understanding can then be applied at more advanced levels for mapping, analysis and interpretation. Guides have been produced so that lecturers can construct these models, and students can easily interact with them.

crackington haven

As part of the second year field trip to Bude (N Cornwall), students interpret the extensional section at Crackington Haven (interpreted photo mosaic above), to gain an understanding of restoration. This exercise introduces them to restoration techniques and illustrates the versatility of the Move™ software package.
The two applied processes of restoration are:

  1. Block restoration: internal deformation in individual fault blocks is restored (involving rotation of the fault block and unfolding) and then the section pieced back together.
  2. Move™ on- fault-restoration: marker horizons are restored by moving the hanging wall along the interpreted fault, to model the effects of fault geometry on hanging wall deformation.

Crackington Haven restoration

The outcomes of these two restoration methods are validated using forward modelling. Understanding these techniques, and the ability to visualise, are the key to producing valid interpretations at a later stage.

Crackington Haven 3

Third Year Mapping Projects

Third year mapping projects remain the culmination of students’ fieldwork experience at Birmingham. Students are given the opportunity to use the various software packages to analyse their maps and field data, produce cross sections and validations and communicate their interpretations.

To aid them, a guide has been produced so that the software can be learned quickly and efficiently. In this guide Cuil Bay, NW Scotland is used as an example (picture). Students will produce similar digital final maps and cross-sections. Exposure to the software packages before students go into the field should increase their enthusiasm to use the programs, so that they are used to their maximum potential.

What next?

Student reactions so far have been enthusiastic: “I just loved being able to build my model and see it in 3D”; “I just couldn’t get those paper exercises straight in my head and it seems so obvious now” are two typical responses. Colette Lyle, 2nd year, University of Birmingham, said: “The software showed a fantastic and easily understandable animation of the movement along the faults. It provided a vital insight into the kinematic history of the cliff face in a way that had not been seen before.”

Consortium members left their meeting with new perspectives and ideas about how to improve and expand the teaching of field mapping to undergraduate and postgraduate students in their classes.

The University of Birmingham resolved to integrate the software into its degree courses in the following 12 months. It would, they decided, form part of their continuing programme within the department to enhance the digitisation of all geological mapping. The Department also pledged to encourage collaboration between universities and to gain feedback and advice from other departments currently implementing similar changes.

map sketches

In the University of Milan and Milano-Bicocca, Midland Valley presented posters on the field mapping teaching initiative as applied in Milan University at their booth in the AAPG Conference in Denver in June this year. The software is now also being used in the Masters Degree programme. The experience in Milan showed that the opportunity to check the precision of hand-drawn sections with computer-derived data was greatly appreciated. All the students easily learnt the basic functions of 2DMove™, and the results were encouraging.

In the University of Urbino, Students are learning digital mapping techniques using field tablet equipment. From their first experience of field mapping using this new method, the Department plans to introduce of computer tablets from the very start and work entirely within a digital environment. “We have decided to take this route to bypass the problems caused by the mis-match between paper and digital maps; students will now go into the field with pen-computer and software for their field mapping”, says Mauro De Donatis, lecturer at Urbino. Students collecting their data in this way ensure that their dataset is immediately suitable for the 3D environment and its import into 2DMove™ and 3DMove™.

Durham - Assynt

In the University of Durham the Move™ resource is being developed to support a second-year mapping training course in the Assynt region, NW Scotland. This will allow the students to visualise the interaction of the main geological units with the topography and act as a check on their own mapping and section construction in the evenings at the Inchnadamph field centre. The plan is to introduce Move™ cross-section and 3D model-building into second year Earth Visualisation modules.

And finally…

The eight members of the consortium firmly believe that the construction of geological maps and cross-sections is a fundamental skill that needs to be learned by all students hoping to qualify and work as professional geoscientists. The availability and development of tools such as Move™ has significantly improved the ability of the consortium members to deliver effective training in this area, and we hope that the wider geoscience community will be able to benefit from this initiative over the coming years.

Following input and feedback from the consortium members, Midland Valley have been continuously adding new functionality to Move™, to further enhance the application for field mapping. We have recently tested Move™ on a rugged laptop linked to a GPS system, to facilitate direct use in the field in primary data collection, as well as analysis. At the time of writing, a team of Midland Valley geologists is currently working in the field in the NW Highlands of Scotland, one of the classic areas for training generations of students, to test the new mapping functionality. Watch this space for some exciting new workflows and models!

Active Departments and contacts involved in the initiative

University of Delft (NL) - Jan Kees Blom; University of Milan (I) - Fabrizio Berra; University of Birmingham (UK) - Carl Stevenson, Samantha Spendlove, Jonathan Turner; University of Glasgow (UK) - Zoe Shipton; University of Milano-Bicocca (I) - Stefano Zanchetta; University of Portsmouth (UK) - John Whalley; University of Durham (UK) - Kenneth McCaffrey; University of Aberdeen (UK)- Robert Butler; University of Urbino (I) - Mauro De Donatis


Joanna Sterling, Midland Valley; Samantha Spendlove, University of Birmingham; Stefano Zanchetta, University of Milano-Bicocca; Fabrizio Berra, University of Milan wish to thank everyone involved in the Field Mapping Initiative (FMI) program and to Derek Powell for permission to use his maps for the exercises for this article. Thanks also go to Carl Stevenson, and Jonathan Turner from the University of Birmingham, Mauro De Donatis from The University of Urbino, Kenneth McCaffrey, University of Durham for their contribution.


  1. Powell, D. (1991) Interpretation of geological structures through maps: an introductory practical manual.176 pp., Longman
  2. Berra, F., Zanchetta, S., Zanchi, A. (2008) Teaching geological cross sections to bachelor students: exercises with 2DMove™. Conference Poster
  3. Spendlove, S. J., Stevenson, C. T., Turner, J. P. & Smith, M. P., (2008) Embedding Enterprise into Geological Mapping, TSG Conference Poster

  • The consortium will now pool its collective information and make the training materials available for all universities wishing to improve field mapping teaching in their own departments. For more information on the FMI and how you can get involved please get in touch with Roddy Muir at Midland Valley (E: or T: 0141 3322681).