GIS and Earth Systems Modeling

An ever-growing number of models currently exist for abstracting, simulating, and understanding complex details of physical, biological, and social systems and subsystems.   The domains of the individual modeling packages vary widely, from soils to hydrology, from socioeconomics to land-use transportation.  While much progress has been made in recent years to develop models to help us to better understand our world, there is still much more to be done—especially in the area of integration.  As we gain more detailed understanding of different granular systems and their components, the challenge in addressing complex issues such as global climate change is coupling these models together to gain a more complete picture.  The combination of powerful hardware, sophisticated software, and increased human knowledge have all contributed to better models and more accurate simulations, but a GIS-based framework for integrating these disparate representations of past, present, and future states is key to understanding the whole earth.

The Earth System Modeling Framework (ESMF) is an open source collaborative project co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The goal of the ESMF project is to build “…high-performance, flexible software infrastructure to increase ease of use, performance portability, interoperability, and reuse in climate, numerical weather prediction, data assimilation, and other Earth science applications.”

A key component is definition of an architecture for coupling together of disparate modeling systems, as well as providing support of new, framework-complaint models.  A core principle of the ESMF framework is the deconstruction of complex models into small components defined by standards such that they can be quickly and easily assembled in different ways to create new models.

One of the key tenants of ESMF is interagency collaboration—the framework streamlines and simplifies dialog and model/code sharing between analysts and modelers across a wide range of U.S. government agencies.  The end result is much more comprehensive model views of climate impacts.   However, ESMF is primarily focused on sharing of code and models, not data and workflows.

Integrating Models with GIS

GIS itself is an incredibly valuable tool for spatial analysis and modeling, but there are a many standalone models available designed for highly specialized, domain-specific modeling, analysis, and problem solving.   Most domain-specific models are not yet and probably never will be fully implemented in a GIS framework; however, the spatial display, analysis, and data management capabilities of GIS can still be utilized to greatly streamline almost any modeling workflow.  The diagram below shows an example of how GIS provides a comprehensive framework for a highway noise modeling workflow.


Using GIS for noise model workflow management and post-modeling support.

The diagram below shows a more comprehensive modeling framework where GIS is used for workflow management and post-modeling support for multiple domain-specific models; in addition, outputs from multiple models can be compared, analyzed, and modeled within the GIS system itself.  Such a GIS-based framework offers a comprehensive environment for modeling across complex earth systems.


A GIS-based framework integrating multiple domain-specific models and performing multidisciplinary modeling.

Creating a framework that successfully brings together and manages a plethora of data sources and modeling systems to tackle the most pressing environmental issues of our time is surely a monumental challenge, but it is a challenge for which GIS is well suited.  Once the data and technology framework is in place and a clear workflow is established, the challenge then becomes organizing a large group of people to do the work of modeling multiple complex scenarios in order to identify the best of possible design futures for the planet.

What Is Needed

Because most domain-specific models are implemented in a GIS framework, yet they are instrumental to the success of an earth systems modeling and global design framework, a complete accounting of available models, how they work, and how they integrate with GIS is essential.

  1. Maintain a Knowledge Base of Earth Systems Models. In support of earth systems modeling and global design framework, we need an open, wiki-like knowledge base cataloging environmental and earth systems models at all scales.
  2. Share Best Practices on the Use of Models in a GIS Framework. The models knowledge base should include best practices information on how each model integrates with GIS, in terms of data models, data management, display and visualization, and analysis.