Technology Drives Climate Science: A GIS-based Action Plan

Our world faces unprecedented challenges, and only one technology is poised to collect, manage, and analyze the myriad of physical, biological, and cultural data describing the past, present, and future of Earth.  That technology is geographic information systems (GIS), commonly used today to view and manage information about geographic places, analyze geographic relationships, and model geographic processes.

GIS technology has proven to be invaluable in driving intelligent decision making, and its application to climate science is a natural fit.  In fact, extensive work has already been done over the last 40 years to apply GIS technology to address subjects such as land use inventory, data model development, climate model integration, carbon accounting, and climate change visualization.

We are at a point in the evolution of the technology and its broad application where the next logical step is development of a GIS-based framework for earth systems modeling and global design.  Such a system would cross academic, scientific, and industrial domains and political boundaries to serve as a platform for a comprehensive climate monitoring, modeling, and management system.

There are several actions we can take now to establish a framework that leverages mature GIS technology to advance climate science.

  • Create a Comprehensive Climate Information System. A GIS-based platform for modeling and managing earth systems will help us identify climate trends, understand the effects of climate change, design mitigation plans, predict possible outcomes, monitor results, and provide feedback for an adaptive response.
  • Create a Climate Data Infrastructure. A global spatial data infrastructure for climate change studies—a loosely-coupled, decentralized directory of all types of climate and map data and imagery—will serve as the basis for earth systems modeling and global design projects conducted in the Climate Information System.
  • Integrate Earth Systems Modeling. A thorough inventory of climate change related spatial data models and sharing of best practices on interoperability will be of tremendous value as we build a Climate Information System for analyzing impacts and alternative futures at a comprehensive, global scale.
  • Develop a Global Climate Dashboard. A Global Climate Dashboard would summarize information from the Climate Information System, providing “executives” and citizens alike with real-time geographic visualization of various earth systems parameters, enabling a more responsive, iterative, and adaptive response to climate change.
  • Move towards Global Design. A GIS-based geodesign framework will provide a robust set of tools for design professionals to support the design and evaluation of alternate futures for our earth and its systems.

We are only beginning to understand the complex issues posed by climate change.  Only through careful observation of the data, application of scientific principals, and leveraging of modern technology can we hope to grasp the intricacies of the exceedingly complex systems that comprise our planet.  A GIS-based framework for climate science offers the best chance at gaining a scientific understanding of earth systems at a truly global scale and for making thoughtful, informed design decisions that ultimately allow humans and nature to coexist more harmoniously.

UN Chief Ban Ki-moon: IT ‘Vital’ in Climate Change Fight

…from Yahoo!News

“Information and communication technologies are “vital” in tackling climate change, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Monday, urging the industry to think up fresh ideas to harness technology and usher in a green economy.

“Opening one of the industry’s biggest fairs, ITU Telecom World, Ban said: “ICTs are … very vital to confronting the problems we face as a planet: the threat of climate change.””

Report Shows Future Growth, Current Challenges for Carbon Software Market


“Regulatory shifts in climate change policy around the world will spur companies to ditch the simple Excel spreadsheets they’ve been using to track their emissions in favor of carbon management software. The trend will lead to an explosion within the market, pushing its value from at least $20 million now to more than $250 million in 2012, a new report found.

“But as companies make the transition from spreadsheets, they often find themselves confused by the ever-growing selection of carbon management software on the market, according to Verdantix, the U.K.-based research firm that published the report today, titled “Green Quadrant: Carbon Management Software.””

Living, Meandering River Constructed: Vegetation and Sand Essential in Stream Life

nsflogoIn a feat of reverse-engineering, Christian Braudrick of University of California at Berkeley and three coauthors have successfully built and maintained a scale model of a living meandering gravel-bed river in the lab. Their findings point to the importance of vegetation to reinforce the banks and, surprisingly, to the importance of sand in healthy meandering river life.

The significance of vegetation for slowing erosion and reinforcing banks has been known for a long time, but this is the first time it has been scientifically demonstrated as a critical component in meandering. Sand is an ingredient generally avoided in stream restoration as it is known to disrupt salmon spawning. However, Braudrick and his colleagues have shown that it is indispensable for helping to build point bars and to block off cut-off channels and chutes–tributaries that might start and detract from the flow and health of the stream.

The model is a first for the delicate balance of ingredients of the model flood plain, gravel (sand), fine sediment, vegetation and water to come together in such a way that the stream took life and behaved in the way its healthy counterparts in nature would at 50 to 100 times the size and on the scale of hours instead of years.

In 130 hours after being set into motion, this train-set size (6m x 17m) river eroded its banks and built point bars by depositing model sand and gravel moving around in its environment the way parts of the Mississippi River would over five or seven years.

In nature, this behavior not only achieves a “picture perfect” waterway with pleasing bends, but it yields what earth scientist Braudrick calls “more biological bang for the buck.”

“Meandering” generally occurs in streams with moderate slopes and is a common form of river between canyon-bound rivers in the mountains and deltas near the ocean. The physics and geology of meandering streams combine to yield both shallow portions as well as deeper pools. The diversity of habitat is a more hospitable environment to sustain a higher diversity of species. This is in contrast to another stream type with many islands but more uniform and shallower water called “braided streams.”

Stream restoration is an extremely complex and delicate science. Because there is no formula to create meandering streams. Successful stream restorers almost require a sixth sense to get everything right and set a sustainable environment into motion, and not every restored stream lasts. Some form extra channels becoming braided streams; some stagnate.

Braudrick and his colleagues hope to shed light on the necessary conditions for sustained meandering in coarse bedded rivers. They have used a clever combination of painted sand that stands in for gravel, a light weight plastic that looks like sugar for sand, and alfalfa sprouts that stand in for the deep rooted vegetation, such as cottonwoods or willows that grow along many meandering rivers in the wild.

The research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and appears in the Sept. 28, 2009 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

[Source: National Science Foundation press release]

Map of the Day: Reducing the Impact of Transportation on the Human Footprint

…from the ESRI Map Book, Volume 24


“Transportation is one of the most significant factors of human influence on our planet. This map of the human footprint shows the gradient of human impact within the state of Oregon. This map is a unique view of human impact that demonstrates the Oregon Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) dedication to renewable energy.

“It takes 45,000 megawatt hours of electricity annually to run Oregon’s state transportation system. This energy is used for signals, illumination, buildings, ramp metering, and more. Historically this energy comes from mostly nonrenewable sources. ODOT supports efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and is planning for the transition to alternative, renewable fuels that will be required for the future.

“Oregon’s governor has directed state agencies to secure 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, and ODOT is responding by developing the nation’s first solar highway. With 16,000 lane miles of right of way and many other properties under its ownership, ODOT buildings and lands provide a ready asset for the development of solar energy. ODOT also has active projects involving electric vehicle charging stations, alternative fueling sites, and an environmental data management system to help preserve natural and cultural resources.

“Courtesy of the Oregon Department of Transportation, Geographic Information Services.”

Unfolding the Earth: Myriahedral Projections

method…Jarke J. van Wijk, Eindhoven University of Technology, has posted some nice information (including a video) about myriahedral projections…

“Mapping the earth is a classic problem. For thousands of years cartographers, mathematicians, and inventors have come up with methods to map the curved surface of the earth to a flat plane. The main problem is that you cannot do this perfectly, such that both the shape and size of the surface are depicted properly everywhere. This has intrigued me for a long time. Why not just take a map of a small part of the earth, which is almost perfect, glue neighboring maps to it, and repeat this until the whole earth is shown? Of course you get interrupts, but does this matter? What does such a map look like? To check this out, we developed myriahedral projections.”

Remnant Prairie Tracts in Arkansas Studied with GIS


Jennifer Akin, William C. Holimon, Michael D. Warriner, C. Theo Witsell, and William H. Baltosser.

Presented at the 36th Natural Areas Conference, “Living on the Edge: Why Natural Areas Matter”, Vancouver, Washington, USA, September 15-18, 2009.

Tallgrass prairie is one of Arkansas‘ rarest community types resulting from centuries of conversion to agricultural use and urban development. Grassland dependent species have also declined dramatically due to this large scale habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation. Despite this loss, prairie remnants remain scattered across the state with the largest tracts of unplowed prairie found in the Arkansas Valley Ecoregion. The area supports several relatively large tracts of protected prairie and other remnant prairie tracts of unknown status on privately owned land. Two years of surveys to determine the size and quality of prairie remnants and potential remnants were conducted in conjunction with surveys for wintering and breeding grassland birds and rare grassland dependent animal species: the
Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata ornata) and the Arogos Skipper (Atrytone arogos). Potential remnants were mapped based on aerial photography, soil maps, and site surveys from the 1980s and 1990s. Permission was granted to access privately owned tracts, remnant size was estimated using GIS, and floristic inventories were conducted to assess quality. Remnants were ranked based on presence of prairie grasses (Andropogon gerardii, Schizachyrium scoparium, Sorghastrum nutans, Panicum virgatum) and presence of conservative forbs restricted to unplowed prairies. A combination of survey methods was used to determine the distribution and abundance of grassland birds, population size of the Ornate Box Turtle, and distribution of the Arogos Skipper. The results are discussed and will provide critical data for conservation action strategies and focus conservation efforts to high priority areas.

Quote of the Day

“If I were entering adulthood now instead of in the environment of fifty years ago, I would choose a career that kept me in touch with nature more than science. … Too few natural areas remain; both by intent and by indifference we have insulated ourselves from the wilderness that produced us.”

— Charles Lindbergh, 1967