GIS Contributes to Groundbreaking Carbon Emissions Inventory

purdueBy C. C. Miller, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana

Researchers from Purdue University’s Project Vulcan developed processes for aggregating carbon emissions data from multiple sources and formats.  Valuable GIS support for this project came from an unlikely source: the university’s library.

Vulcan is a two-year-old project funded by theNational Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and led by Kevin Gurney, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Its mission is to quantify North American fossil fuel carbon dioxide (C02) emissions at higher spatial and temporal scales than ever before.

The project’s spatial component called for significant amounts of geoprocessing. The majority of these operations, accomplished with ArcGIS, resolve input geographies (points, roads, counties) with 10-kilometer square grid cells. GIS was also used to place surrogate emissions into grid cells using population, land-use, or some other meaningful proxy when necessary. [Emissions surrogates are used as indicators of emissions activity. The spatial distributions are assumed to be representative of the geographic distribution of emissions sources.] Software, custom-built by team members, could then process all input data at a common unit of geography and an hourly temporal scale for an entire year.

The purpose of the Vulcan project is to quantify North American fossil fuel carbon dioxide (C02) emissions at higher spatial and temporal scales than ever before.

The purpose of the Vulcan project is to quantify North American fossil fuel carbon dioxide (C02) emissions at higher spatial and temporal scales than ever before.

Although much of the Vulcan workflow was ripe for GIS input, GIS was late to the party. Purdue University Libraries hired its first GIS librarian in late 2006 to help push new efforts to apply library science expertise to data and information problems facing researchers in labs and centers across campus. Faculty librarians at Purdue were encouraged to assist any department—Communications, Agronomy, Hospitality, and Tourism Management—with data and information problems. The nature of GIS meant these librarians were likely to find work in all these areas.

Response from collaborating faculty and teams has been swift. Purdue librarians have been welcomed onto teams and into collaborations
not traditionally inclined to allocate a portion of grant funds for librarians’ salaries. In particular, information and data—geodata especially—is so unruly and fluid that apparently researchers appreciate the benefits of having a librarian around who knows GIS, is familiar with the geodata, and can handle classic and developing technologies in GIS and geoinformatics.

Consequently, in late 2006, Vulcan project team members who needed to visualize some county data approached the libraries. Just as traditional library reference transactions tend to do, these requests evolved. Requestors asked increasingly complex questions: What could GIS do with data from multiple sources and programs? How could it represent C02 emitters in different formats? As more questions were answered using GIS, the librarian became part of the Vulcan workflow, supplying GIS support to the team and nagging about the importance of metadata and data archiving.

The rest would have been history, but the response to the initial release of Vulcan data, as well as an emerging sister program at Purdue University, the Hestia project, indicates there is plenty of additional work for all parties. [Hestia combines diverse data about the flow and metabolism of the energy-emissions-climate nexus in an intuitive, interactive, photorealistic, three-dimensional visualization of the Earth.]

Contributing GIS and geospatial technologies to an atmospheric sciences project was not accomplished without some disruption. The lexicons that atmospheric scientists and librarians use to communicate do not always equate, nor do the dictionaries of GIS and atmospheric modeling. In addition, the small Vulcan team is required to move large datasets from place to place.

There has not been time to fully develop all the infrastructure needed to automate and streamline the project’s work. However, as part of the academic trend toward more interdisciplinary scholarship and research, Vulcan is already producing valuable data and tools. Atmospheric science has been the primary beneficiary; computer graphics, geoinformatics, and data librarianship will also benefit from the labor dedicated to and lessons learned from Project Vulcan.

The project is funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and led by Kevin Gurney, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

The project is funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and led by Kevin Gurney, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

While all Vulcan’s components are scheduled for improvement, the data used to surrogate emission sources and the automated spot-check mapping infrastructure used to quickly examine model output will be among the first enhanced. Future additions to the project will include intelligent, automated data archiving and online interaction with data. These additions will ensure that—while the computer scientists, computer graphics specialists, and atmospheric scientists will have their hands full with software, visualizations,
and important new analysis—there will still be plenty of work for the resident librarian.

Some geoinformatic aspects of Vulcan were used in an inaugural geoinformatics course taught by Purdue faculty members (including the author of this article) in spring 2008. Project members expect that successful models for working with and disseminating Vulcan data will filter into other initiatives for improving accessibility to geodata across the Purdue campus.

For more information, contact:

C. C. Miller, Assistant Professor of Library Science, Geographic Information Systems Specialist (GIS Librarian),
Purdue University Libraries
Tel.: 765-496-9474
E-mail: ccmiller@purdue.edu
Web: gis.lib.purdue.edu (department) or
http://www.purdue.edu (institution)

(This article originally appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of GIS Educator.)

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