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]

We Need a Concerted Global Research Drive into the Potential and Pitfalls of Geoengineering

ns_logo…from NewScientist

“The problem with all of these schemes is that we have little clue whether they would work. Some of the best evidence so far comes from the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, which obligingly conducted a large-scale experiment for us on the effect of injecting sulphur into the upper atmosphere. From a global cooling perspective, the results were encouraging: temperatures sank temporarily by up to 0.5 °C. It remains unclear, however, whether the effects of sulphur on global weather patterns can be predicted or controlled. The dangers include triggering severe regional droughts, and even destroying the ozone layer.

“Faced with such dangers, it would be foolhardy to do anything yet. What we need is a concerted global research drive into the potential and pitfalls of geoengineering. It will take decades to establish which of the possibilities are feasible, effective and safe, what their costs would be, and for whom. Such a programme – encompassing modelling and small-scale experiments, as well as research into the international legal implications of such schemes – need not be expensive, says Steve Rayner of the University of Oxford. It would be small change compared with, say, what is needed to develop alternative energy technologies.”

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.

GIS Enters the Design Space

By Matt Artz, GIS and Science Program Manager, ESRI

“Imagine if your initial design concept, scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin, has the full power of GIS behind it. The sketch goes into the database, becoming a layer that can be compared to all the other layers in the database.”

With that simple yet powerful introduction, ESRI president Jack Dangermond launches in to an explanation of the convergence of GIS and design. Dangermond is truly excited about the possibilities. That’s why he chose “GIS: Designing Our Future” as the theme for the 2009 ESRI International User Conference, to be held next month in San Diego, California.

A GIS is a collection of hardware, software, and data for managing, visualizing, and analyzing geographic information. But what exactly is design? That depends on who you ask. A formal definition might explain how design is the process of planning or sketching the structure or form of something. Other definitions of design are more esoteric, yet much more descriptive. Charles Eames called design “a plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose.” Glen Lowery described design as “a bridge between the abstraction of research and the tangible requirement of real life.” And Gavin Heaton defined design simply as “applied imagination.”

Designing Our Future

So how does GIS play in the design space? Dangermond believes that the key to developing a true understanding of our complex and dynamic earth is creating a framework to take many different pieces of past and future data from a variety of sources and merge them in a single system. GIS is a sophisticated technological tool already in widespread use by planners, engineers, and scientists for displaying and analyzing all forms of location-referenced data about the health, status, and history of our planet. GIS enables a GeoDesign framework for analyzing, managing, and ultimately directing anthropogenic earth issues by allowing users to inventory and display large, complex spatial datasets. They can also analyze the potential interplay between various factors and design alternative futures, getting us closer to a true understanding of how our dynamic earth systems may change in the coming decades and centuries—and how we may thoughtfully and intelligently direct that change.

It’s not a stretch to say that development of GIS technology and the entire industry around it was profoundly influenced by the foundational work of landscape architect Ian McHarg. He popularized the overlay concept and laid the groundwork for what was to become GIS, taking a number of budding young landscape architects and geographers and changing their lives forever. “McHarg and I may have disagreed on some things, but we clearly shared the vision of using geographic analysis techniques to design a better world,” notes Dangermond. “Although we’ve made a lot of progress in building the technological infrastructure to help us accomplish this monumental task, we still have work to do.”

Design is art within the framework of limitations—limitations that arise as a result of function, world view, bias, and other factors, but also limitations that arise as a result of place. “Design considering place was at the core of McHarg’s beliefs, and it is the basis for our research and development efforts in the emerging field of GeoDesign,” notes Dangermond.

GeoDesign borrows concepts from landscape architecture, environmental studies, geography, planning, regenerative studies, and integrative studies. Much like GIS and environmental planning before it, GeoDesign takes an interdisciplinary, synergistic approach to solving critical problems and optimizing location, orientation, and features of projects both local and global in scale.

GeoDesign may be a new term to some people, but GIS and design have a long history together. And whether they realize it or not, over the last 40 years, many GIS professionals have been involved in GeoDesign projects. “To a certain extent, this is already done today by numerous GIS practitioners in fields like urban and regional planning and environmental management,” says Dangermond. “But GeoDesign makes this easier by making it an integral part of the workflow, both shortening the cycle time of the design process and improving the quality of the results.” Dangermond sees with great clarity a new focus on this synergistic approach, primarily lead by such pressing issues as environmental degradation and climate change.

What Is GeoDesign?

GeoDesign brings geographic analysis into the design process, where initial design “sketches” are instantly vetted for suitability against a myriad of database layers describing a variety of physical and social factors for the spatial extent of the project. This on-the-fly suitability analysis provides a framework for design, giving land-use planners, engineers, transportation planners, and others involved with design the tools to directly leverage geographic information within their design workflows. “Taking full advantage of geography during the design process results in designs that emulate the best features and functions of natural systems, benefiting both humans and nature through a more peaceful and synergistic coexistence,” Dangermond said.

GeoDesign involves three activity spaces: the work environment (where designers do their work), design tools (the tools designers use to do their work), and supportive workflows (how designers do their work). Having one of these out of sync with either of the others can impede the design process.

  • Work Environment—The work environment used by GeoDesign professionals involves the field, the desktop, connection to enterprise servers and databases, the use of document management systems, collaborative environments (both inside and outside the enterprise), and interaction with outside agencies and organizations.
  • Design Tools— GeoDesigners use a variety of tools to assist them as they create their designs. The most frequently used type of tool is the drawing tool. The particular type of drawing tool depends on the designer’s domain and whether the designer is working in 2D or 3D space.
  • Supportive Workflows—Most GeoDesign workflows are domain specific. Three workflows pertaining to the use of geographic information stand out, however, as being predominantly genetic: one related to land-use change; one related to the design, construction, and management of built facilities; and one related to the use of 2D CAD.

Meeting the Challenge

Integration of design tools with existing GIS functionality is important, but it’s only the first step. Dangermond’s vision expands the utility of GIS to the point that it is a foundational design system. As humanity comes to grips with its overwhelming impact on the natural world, we are also gaining a much better appreciation for our inextricable link to nature and how technology can help us make the world a better place. And with that, of course, comes an enormous responsibility—a responsibility made all the more gargantuan by the fact that we still have a long way to go toward fully understanding the dynamics of the various systems and developing a robust suite of comprehensive models and other tools to support the design of alternative futures.

“A better world is the common goal all of us—geographers, planners, scientists, and others—have been striving for,” says Dangermond. “We should be using our dominance of the earth and advanced technologies such as GIS to help evolve the natural world and make it better, not to ‘conquer’ it. Powerful anthropogenic influence over earth systems represents not just a huge challenge but an equally huge opportunity—not humans versus nature, but humans with nature.”

You can learn more about Jack Dangermond’s vision of GeoDesign at the 2009 ESRI International User Conference. Also, look for his upcoming article titled “GIS: Designing Our Future” in the summer 2009 issue of ArcNews.

Climate Change Science, GIS, and Whole Earth Systems

Global climate change is a difficult, complex, politically charged, and vitally important issue. Yet from a knowledge perspective, we are at a distinct disadvantage: at this point in time, we still do not have a clear idea of everything we need to know in order to address the problem in a measured, rational, and above all, scientific manner.

When you think about the multitude of issues surrounding climate change science—from root causes to resultant impacts—geography is clearly an elemental factor in the equation. Every aspect of climate change affects or is affected by geography, be it at a global, regional, or local level. As a tool for helping us to better understand such geographies, GIS is the single most powerful integrating tool for inventorying, analyzing, and ultimately managing this extremely complex problem.

A GIS-based approach called “Whole Earth Systems” provides a framework for understanding and addressing the entire breadth of climate change science issues in a holistic manner. What do we mean by “Whole Earth Systems”? Scientists have long classified various phenomena into logical groupings or “systems.” These classifications have helped greatly to advance the understanding of component physical, biological, and social systems. While advancing the understanding of each of these systems individually is vitally important, ultimately we need to bring all of these systems together, to understand how they are interrelated and dependent upon one other.

Whole Earth Systems science offers an opportunity to advance the science and understanding of climate change by providing a framework for a comprehensive, interdisciplinary, integrated view of our planetary system. Aggregating complex physical, biological, and social data and models within a unified framework will give us single view of the whole Earth system and provide us with the tools to manage—and ultimately design—our future in the most effective, efficient, and morally defensible way.

Meeting the Challenge of Climate Change with GIS

On page 4 of the new report Restructuring Federal Climate Research to Meet the Challenges of Climate Change from the National Academies Press, one of the committee’s top six priority actions for restructured climate change research is to…

“Develop the science base and infrastructure to support a new generation of coupled Earth system models to improve attribution and prediction of high impact regional weather and climate, to initialize seasonal to decadal climate forecasting, and to provide predictions of impacts affecting adaptive capacities and vulnerabilities of environmental and human systems.

“Further climate change is inevitable, even if humans significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is therefore essential not only to have the capacity to explain what is happening to climate and why (attribution), but also to improve predictions of weather and climate variability at the spatial and temporal scales appropriate to assess the impacts of climate change. Both will require improved infrastructure and techniques in modeling the coupled human-land-ocean-atmosphere system, supported by sustained climate observations. The latter are necessary to further develop and constrain the models and to start model predictions from the most accurate observed state possible (initialization). Tools are also needed to translate the data and model output into information more usable by stakeholders. Improved predictions of regional climate will also require more unified modeling frameworks that provide for the hierarchical treatment of climate and forecast phenomena across a wide range of space and time scales, and for the routine production of decadal regional climate predictions at scales down to a few kilometers. New computing configurations will be needed to deal with the computational and data storage demands arising from decadal simulations at high resolution with high output frequency.”

The potential role of GIS as a base platform for helping to meet this goal cannot be understated. GIS will be invaluable as a foundation for data management (both of inputs and outputs associated with coupled Earth system models); performing analysis, spatial modeling, and geospatial statistics across multiple models; visualization and presentation of data and results; and dissemination of data and results to a wider audience.

The key to developing a true understanding of our complex and dynamic earth is creating a framework to take many different pieces of past and future data from a variety of sources and merge them together in a single system. GIS is a sophisticated technology tool already in widespread use by planners, engineers, and scientists to display and analyze all forms of location-referenced data about the health, status, and history of our planet. GIS provides a framework for analyzing and managing anthropogenic earth issues by allowing users to inventory and display large, complex spatial data sets. They can also analyze the potential interplay between various factors, getting us closer to a true understanding of how our dynamic earth systems may change in the coming decades and centuries. A GIS framework also lets us design and test various alternatives, helping us make the most educated and informed decision about the best possible future.