Collecting & Analyzing Data in Earth & Space Science

Instructor: Heather Pier

Heather has taught high school and college science courses, and has a master's degree in geography-climatology.

In this lesson, you will learn about the different types of data collected by earth and space scientists, how that data is collected, and how it's analyzed.

How Do Earth and Space Scientists Collect Data?

Like all scientists, earth and space scientists rely on data to help them understand scientific phenomena, and ultimately to draw conclusions about scientific occurrences. Data is another way of saying facts or statistics that are collected about a particular subject.

The U.S. Census collects demographic data; your doctor monitors your height and weight data; and paleontologists make observations of different fossil features. These are all examples of data.

Data can be collected in a variety of different ways.

  • Many earth scientists, like geologists and paleontologists, directly collect data from whatever location they are working at.
  • Space scientists often don't have the luxury of traveling into space to collect their data directly, so they will remotely collect it through the use of satellites and space probes.

Meteorologists and geographers also will remotely collect their data, using satellites and other weather monitoring equipment.

Most astronomy data is collected remotely such as through the use of satellites.

What Types of Data Are Collected?

While a tremendous number of things can be considered data, how can all that data be further classified into more specific and descriptive categories? There are two main types of data: quantitative and qualitative.

Quantitative data is any sort of data that involves numerical quantities, such as the magnitude of an earthquake, the amount of rainfall an area receives, or the average height of professional basketball players.

This is what most people think of as data. But there is another kind of data that is just as important, particularly in the earth and space sciences called qualitative data.

Weather balloons like this one collect all sorts of quantitative data.

Qualitative data is any form of data that does not involve numbers. It is data that can easily be observed with the human eye. This includes observations of properties like shape, color, texture, location, or other non-numerical details of a subject.

Common qualitative earth science observations include data found on maps, the shape of a stream's channel, or the color of a particular mineral.

Streams can provide both qualitative and quantitative data to scientists.

How Do We Analyze Quantitative Data?

The numerical nature of quantitative data makes it pretty easy to understand how it is analyzed. We can perform calculations, run simulations, or form equations based on the data.

The data can be graphed too, looking for patterns or trends. Most of the time, what we think of as scientific analysis is quantitative data analysis.

For example, imagine a scientist who is interested in the average amount of snowfall a given location receives each year. That scientist could first collect data on how much snow falls each day for several years or more.

They could use that information to compute a daily snowfall average. If they wanted to, they could then add all of the individual days of a month together (all of the January days are added together, all of the February days are added together, and so on) and use that to compute a monthly average for each month over the time period that the data was collected for.

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