The Four Elements: It’s all in the Record (continued)

The silicate bodies of the Solar System (Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon and Mars). Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Plate tec­ton­ics is thought to be nec­es­sary for main­tain­ing a sta­ble cli­mate capa­ble of sup­port­ing life. Some more mod­el­ing sug­gests that both size and sur­face con­di­tions of the plan­et are impor­tant, with plate tec­ton­ics being favored for larg­er, cool­er plan­ets. This implies that plate tec­ton­ics on oth­er worlds should cor­re­late with size, inci­dent solar radi­a­tion, and atmos­pher­ic com­po­si­tion.

So far, so good.

Plan­et mass and radius set a con­straint for ter­res­tri­al plan­et mod­els and, via mod­els, a planet’s bulk com­po­si­tion can be enter­pret­ed. There is a ref­er­ence describ­ing the fun­da­men­tal equa­tions for cal­cu­lat­ing the inte­ri­or struc­ture of ter­res­tri­al plan­ets (includ­ing sil­i­cate-rich, iron-rich, and water-rich plan­ets). So even if you are not into mod­el­ing, but want to know your con­world bet­ter, it’s a good read any­way.

In this arti­cle, how­ev­er, I want to focus on geo­phys­i­cal soft­ware. And yes, maps.

Com­pu­ta­tion­al ther­mo­dy­nam­ics and plan­et inte­ri­ors

There are numer­ous soft­ware pack­ages (e.g. MELTS, pMELTS, etc.), cre­at­ed by OFM Research. Some of them are avail­able online in the form of Java applets; all soft­ware can be down­loaded from the offi­cial site. This soft­ware pro­vides a com­put­ing envi­ron­ment in com­pu­ta­tion­al ther­mo­dy­nam­ics for petrol­o­gy and geo­chem­istry, which includes com­plex cal­cu­la­tions of the ther­mo­dy­nam­ic prop­er­ties of mate­ri­als, the gen­er­a­tion of phase dia­grams and pseu­do-sec­tions, and the mod­el­ing of the chem­i­cal evo­lu­tion of a sys­tem along geo­log­i­cal­ly impor­tant irre­versible reac­tion paths.

pMELTS was used in the research of geo­dy­nam­ics and rate of vol­can­ism on mas­sive earth-like plan­ets by Kite et al. 2009, see the pre­vi­ous post.

Plate tec­ton­ics soft­ware

There are some freely avail­able pro­grams for con­ti­nent recon­struc­tion and plate move­ment ani­ma­tion, etc. How­ev­er, keep in mind they they don’t cre­ate con­ti­nents for you, so if you want to mod­el and alien plan­et, you’ll have to input data from scratch and do some seri­ous work with Carte­sian coor­di­nates and what have you.

The sim­plest one is GLG-Plates.

This screen grab shows the 96Ma stage of the break-up of Gondwana.
This screen grab shows the 96Ma stage of the break-up of Gond­wana.

GLG-Plates is used by under­grad­u­ate stu­dents to recon­struct ancient con­ti­nents. Plate mod­els con­tain­ing pole data extract­ed from the pub­lished lit­er­a­ture are pro­vid­ed. The plate mod­els may be ani­mat­ed. In addi­tion, there are tools for the cre­ation of new plates and addi­tion­al plate mod­els.

GPlates is more sophis­ti­cat­ed desk­top soft­ware for the inter­ac­tive visu­al­i­sa­tion of plate tec­ton­ics. It offers a com­bi­na­tion of inter­ac­tive plate tec­ton­ic recon­struc­tions, geo­graph­ic infor­ma­tion sys­tem (GIS) func­tion­al­i­ty and raster data visu­al­iza­tion. GPlates runs on Win­dows, Lin­ux and MacOS X.

A plate tec­ton­ic recon­struc­tion is the cal­cu­la­tion of posi­tions and ori­en­ta­tions of tec­ton­ic plates at an instant in the his­to­ry of the plan­et. The visu­al­iza­tion of recon­struc­tions is a valu­able tool for under­stand­ing the evo­lu­tion of the sys­tems and process­es of the planet’s sur­face and near sub­sur­face.

World topography bathymetry reconstructed in Map View
World topog­ra­phy bathym­e­try recon­struct­ed in Map View

GPlates extends the graph­i­cal edit­ing capa­bil­i­ty of GIS (Geo­graph­ic Infor­ma­tion Sys­tem) soft­ware. Oper­a­tions such as tweak­ing geom­e­try shapes and man­u­al­ly fine-tun­ing recon­struct­ed plate posi­tions are inter­ac­tive graph­i­cal oper­a­tions and can be manip­u­lat­ed direct­ly.

Update: Aug 24, 2013 — Astrographer’s blog has a good tuto­r­i­al for GPlates.


I’m sure many of you heard about PALEOMAP Project.

The goal of the PALEOMAP Project is to illus­trate the plate tec­ton­ic devel­op­ment of the ocean basins and con­ti­nents, as well as the chang­ing dis­tri­b­u­tion of land and sea dur­ing the past 1100 mil­lion years in Earth’s his­to­ry. And, of course, future maps.

It is a real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing idea and I believe it is the best illus­tra­tion avail­able how a plan­et behaves. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the soft­ware involved in PALEOMAP devel­op­ment is not a free stuff.

If all above made you cringe, there is a way to avoid com­pli­cat­ed things. It is called Frac­tal Ter­rains. It is not a free way, though, but it is not expen­sive.

I got myself an offi­cial copy of FT some time ago and I have to admit, it is a very good world gen­er­a­tor. If you want to try it out, there is a demo ver­sion avail­able.

A part of the early Dannan map for my sci-fi novel made in Fractal Terrains 3
A part of the ear­ly Dan­nan map for my sci-fi nov­el made in Frac­tal Ter­rains 3

Of course, there is still an alter­na­tive to every­thing, a good old pen & paper alter­na­tive. Which one you like is up to you. And if you are flu­ent in Pho­to­shop and/or AI, more pow­er to you.

Update: Feb 2013

The World Build­ing School has a very neat tool to cre­ate stun­ning maps.

The Map Generator for Photoshop
The Map Gen­er­a­tor for Pho­to­shop

It’s called The Map Gen­er­a­tor for Pho­to­shop. It’s not free, but it might be what you’re look­ing for to cre­ate high qual­i­ty maps for your sto­ry and put it in your book.

# Have fun! If I find some­thing else to play with, I will add it here.

## If you hap­pen to know some oth­er soft­ware that can be used for fic­tion­al maps, please share with me.

Jeno Marz
JENO MARZ is a science fiction writer from Latvia, Northern Europe, with background in electronics engineering and computer science. She is the author of two serial novels, Falaha’s Journey: A Spacegirl’s Account in Three Movements and Falaha’s Journey into Pleasure. Marz is current at work on a new SF trilogy. All her fiction is aimed at an adult audience.

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