Climate Modeling and Uncertainty

Nice little mention of the uncertainty of climate modeling in the Earthwise newsletter (Winter 2008-2009) from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

What factor is the source of the most uncertainty in climate projections?

Scientists use models—calculations typically run on multiple powerful computers—to project how global warming pollution in the atmosphere will affect future average temperatures, precipitation, and other aspects of our climate. The formulas used to project climate change differ among models, but the most significant variable is always how much energy will be used over the course of this century (based on choices made by governments, businesses, and individual citizens).

To account for this uncertainty, climate models employ different “scenarios” to approximate the impact that different degrees of energy use will have on carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions over time—which, in turn, yield different degrees of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, used a set of six scenarios for its most recent climate assessment, ranging from low emissions (the “B1” scenario) to high emissions (“A1FI,” in which FI represents fossil-fuel-intensive energy use).

By the end of this century, as projected by the B1 scenario, temperatures rise between 2.7 and 5.2 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) over the 1980–2000 average; in the A1FI scenario, the projected rise in temperatures increases to between 6.1°F and 11.0°F. The difference between the average end-of-century temperatures for these two scenarios, therefore, is substantial—nearly 4.6°F. This underscores the need to make energy choices today that will set us on a lower-emissions path and avoid the most dangerous consequences of global warming.

I had the opportunity to attend the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presentation at the 2008 ESRI International User Conference in San Diego. It was a great presentation, and you can see the Powerpoint slides here.

Ronald Reagan and those Pesky Polluting Redwoods

“Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.”
–Ronald Reagan

At least once a month for the last 19 years, I’ve thanked former president Ronald Reagan, for without him, I possibly never would have ended up working for ESRI.

Let me explain. In 1987, I was an Environmental Scientist working at Engineering-Science, Inc. (a division of the Parsons Corporation), focusing on highway and airport noise modeling and dabbling in cultural resource assessment on the side. Michael Fene’ and I were responsible for the budding GIS implementation at Engineering-Science, so we actually ended up touching a lot of different disciplines.

President Reagan’s legendary references to pollution-causing vegetation lead one agency to hire Engineering-Science to develop a model of all the pollution emitted from all vegetation within the state of California, so we immediately set about trying to find a suitable state-wide vegetation database. As part of the project, Michael and I spent half a day out in Redlands with some ESRI staffers. I was so impressed that later that night, I started working on my resume.

“Approximately 80% of our air pollution stems from hydrocarbons released by vegetation, so let’s not go overboard in setting and enforcing tough emission standards from man-made sources.”
–Ronald Reagan

Enough already! Stop picking on the late Ronald Reagan! OK, maybe there’s room for just one more quote…

“If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all.”
–Ronald Reagan

GIS and Science or GIScience?

As someone with a keen interest in promoting the value of GIS technology for scientific applications, when talking about “GIS and Science” I often am asked “Oh, you mean GIScience?” In a word, no.  Although there is a fairly blurry line when some people use the words GIS and science in the same sentence, the distinction is pretty clear in my mind. So I wanted to take just a moment to clarify, at least from my perspective, how the focus of my blog differs from GIScience.

According to Prof. Michael F. Goodchild at the University of California at Santa Barbara, geographic information science or GIScience is the study of “the theory and concepts that lie behind GIS and the other geographic information technologies” and “considers fundamental questions raised by the use of (these) systems and technologies.”  Additionally, David Maguire, ESRI’s chief scientist, cites uncertainty, cartographic representation, spatial analysis, and modeling as some examples GIScience study area. Goodchild notes other areas including data models and structures, methods of representation (and the relationship between the representation and the user), display methods. This is only a partial list; there are many other areas of study in GIScience.

While GIScience is certainly an important field of study, my blog—GIS and Science—is dedicated to exploring the various applications of GIS in the pursuit of scientific research and analysis.

Routing Technology is Green Technology

“…it could be said that the advances in mathematics that have enabled more efficient routing of vehicles among numerous points are possibly one of the most potent environmental technologies of the last decade. This is not a technology normally recognized by environmentalists and environmental regulators.”

     –Braden Allenby, Reconstructing Earth, 2005

(I’m taking this a little out of context [Allenby was talking about the “green” benefits of e-commerce] but I think I’m remaining pretty faithful to his original intent.)

“Whether increasing the efficiency of fleet vehicles by optimizing standard routes and subsequently reducing fuel consumption or determining the optimum location for a wind farm to produce energy with minimal pollution,” Jim Baumann writes in the introduction to the forthcoming ESRI e-book GIS is a Green Technology, “GIS provides the quantified information and analytical capabilities necessary to make decisions that can both support growth and reduce consumption.”

Integrating GIS and Modeling: A Conversation with Michael Fene’, Part II

In an earlier post, I shared Part I of my conversation with friend and colleague Michael Fene, about our (mostly his) experiences in integrating GIS and modeling.  Here is Part II of our conversation. 

You played a lead role in the development of CATS (Consequences Assessment Tool Set) modeling software at SAIC, didn’t you? 

I extended yet again the basic concepts that you and I elaborated in the mid 1980s to drive the CATS architecture for natural and technological hazard modeling as well as unified approach to consequence assessment to population and infrastructure.  This software suite is still distributed today—there are about 1,500 to 2,000 seats worldwide—and ESRI had a significant influence with CATS’ success.

And then your experience with CATS was leveraged for the Olympics, right?

Right, I had the unique opportunity to provide operational support for the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games as well as the 2004 Athens Summer Olympic Games.  In Athens, I was working closely with, supporting, and training the Hellenic Military and Ministry of Civil Support (Greece’s equivalent to FEMA) in the use of CATS prior to and during the games.  Since Athens was the first summer game since 9/11, there was a very high concern for a WMD threat for that event.

And now we’re finally reunited here at ESRI after almost 20 years.  What projects are you working on now?

I’m supporting the operational needs of DHS and NGA using the latest and greatest capabilities of Enterprise ArcGIS.  If ArcGIS Server had existed 17 years ago when I created “Skippy”, things would have been a lot more straightforward.

You went all over the world, working for a number of different organizations, but you were never too far from ESRI.

It’s funny, many of these systems that I developed were experimental and in order to test them under operational circumstances a variety of temporary licenses were contributed by ESRI to the cause…  Of course these scenarios required Jack Dangermond’s approval each time.

Oh, I remember the phone calls over the years.  “Michael!  Where are you?  And what do you need?”

A few years ago Jack (Dangermond, ESRI president) finally owned up to the fact that he thought I was four different people, spread across the hemisphere. 

Michael, you are larger than life. 

In a very large way Jack seeded and supported my career since the time that you started at ESRI.  And it has been and continues to be very interesting.

GIS is an amazing technology, and ESRI is a fascinating place to work, that’s for sure. 



Dr. Robin D. Smith Joins ESRI’s Environmental Management Team

Experienced Leader to Grow GIS for a Sustainable Planet

October 14, 2008, Redlands, California—The many people who use geographic information system (GIS) technology to better understand and manage the environment have a new resource in ESRI’s environmental industry manager Dr. Robin D. Smith. GIS users will benefit from his 25 years of experience conducting and managing more than 60 environmental investigations and modeling projects and subsequent ecological and human health risk assessments for corrective actions both nationally and internationally.

Dr. Robin Smith

Smith holds a Ph.D. in toxicology and a bachelor of science degree in evolutionary ecology. Throughout his career, he has worked with representatives from industry, national and local governments, and nongovernmental organizations, providing him with useful experiences for his new position at ESRI. Having a solid grasp on environmental management theory and concepts, he has been a professor at the graduate level in environmental risk analysis. In addition, he has real-world practice in applying his capabilities as a state regulator working in the areas of air quality and pesticide regulation. Smith is a member of the Air and Waste Management Association and a full member of the Society of Toxicology.

“We face increasingly complex environmental issues that demand we use the best technologies available to understand, communicate, and address these challenging situations,” notes Smith. “GIS plays a pivotal role in our ability to analyze, manage, and preserve and sustain our environment. GIS is powerful because of its ability to rapidly bring together groups, organizations, and individuals in a way that facilitates environmental decision making on a shared or common problem. My goal is to bring this technology to all levels of society, industry, and government to support the stewardship of our environment.”

ESRI president Jack Dangermond says, “We are highly committed to the efforts of GIS users to understand environmental issues and develop strategies for managing a sustainable planet. Bringing Dr. Smith to the ESRI team will aid in the focus and growth of this critical goal.”

Some of ESRI’s earliest software users were environmental scientists and managers who used GIS to improve their understanding of environmental quality issues for regulatory compliance purposes. Since that time, environmental science GIS applications have continued to grow and expand into research and decision support tools for evaluating and managing issues. Smith’s work has focused on identifying and bringing together disparate groups of stakeholders in collaborative processes to reach agreements on solutions to public health and environmental concerns. This expertise serves ESRI and the environmental management community well in continuing ESRI’s objectives of building software that responds to users’ needs.

Welcome to ESRI, Robin.  It’s a pleasure to work with you.

Integrating GIS and Modeling: A Conversation with Michael Fene’, Part I

I’ve had the pleasure to be associated with many wonderful people over the last 20+ years, and certainly towards the top of my list would be my good friend and colleague Michael Fene’.

Michael and I met in the mid-1980s at Engineering-Science, Inc. (a subsidiary of the Parsons Corporation).  Working on various environmental consulting projects, we both naturally gravitated towards a gigantic workstation and were then tasked to figure out this thing called GIS. 

Michael and I recently had a conversation where we reminisced about the old days, how we got involved in the integration of GIS with modeling software, and eventually both ended up at ESRI. 


Well, you know that I was told at one point that you and I were pioneers in the integration of GIS and modeling, starting with Stamina.  And I can’t remember who told me that…maybe you.

Funny, I remember hearing that story from you.  Maybe we’re legends in our own minds! 

Anyway, Stamina (the FHWA highway noise model) and Optima (related program for optimal modeling of highway noise barriers) was pretty powerful, but very awkward.  The best thing we ever did was to figure out how to use GIS in the workflow.  For example, before GIS became part of our toolkit, I remember laying out rolls of tracing paper, 50+ feet long, on top of blueprints of the proposed Phoenix Outer Loop freeway project, and manually generating thousands of coordinates for modeling the highway and surrounding receptors.  When we started to use GIS to manage the data and automatically generate the Stamina input files, it was like inventing the wheel or something.

I think the Stamina work flow that we elaborated is still a perfect example of utilization of GIS on the input and output side of the workflow – that is not too abstract.  The workflows that you, Carrie Badget West, and I elaborated at Engineering-Science included leveraging primitive vector, raster, image processing, and database functionalities of GIS to get answers that frankly were impossible to obtain without GIS or very expensive. 

I remember the output from Stamina being predicted noise levels at thousands of receptor points, and us having to put the data into a mainframe-based contouring package (so cleverly titled CONTOUR), and then importing the contours into the GIS so we could integrate with the rest of the data. 

You and I then had the opportunity to work with ESRI as an ancillary contractor to Parsons as we actioned the environment impact studies for the LA City Master Plan. 

At some point we worked on the project to model air polution emited by vegetation in the state of California, which was all based on Ronald Reagan’s infamous quote about how redwood trees generated more polution than cars or something.

Then you left Parsons and came to ESRI.

And while I worked at ESRI for about 18 years, spreading the word about GIS, you travelled the world, continuing to explore interesting applications of GIS and modeling.  

In my career beyond Engineering-Science, I used PC ARC/INFO to support a Carrying Capacity Analysis (creating that workflow from scratch) for the State of Hawaii.  This was the first analytical application of GIS in the State; everyone else at that time was simply using GIS to collect data. 

But travelling the world wasn’t enough for you, was it?  You had to go even further…

I was a member of the Galileo Mission to Jupiter NIMS (Near Infrared Mapping Spectrometer) Team, and to my knowledge we were the first to use GIS technology as a geospatial integration platform for data being transmitted from the “bird” back to earth.  I helped create the first “fused” dataset for analysis and visualization of observations captured from multiple sensor observations (over multiple orbits) of Europa and Callisto (two of many moons of Jupiter).

Then you became involved in hazard modeling, didn’t you?

Right, then I extended the same concepts to hazard modeling for natural phenomena by putting several ArcInfo licenses on a supercomputer to produce a Pacific Rim Wide Environment State Common Operating Picture for the Hawaii State Emergency Operations Center and Spawar.  This system was entitled “Pacific Basin Disaster Threat Map”…we called it “Skippy” for short.

(You can read Part II of my conversation with Michael Fene’ here.)

GIS and Science e-book

ESRI has published a series of e-books reprinting user stories collected from ArcNews, ArcUser, and other sources and focused on a specific industry or other topic.  The new GIS and Science e-book, published just last month, leads off with an introduction by Dr. David Maguire, ESRI’s chief scientist, followed by a number of user stories featuring various applications if GIS in science.

GIS and Science e-book

You can download the full GIS and Science e-book here.