Map Stories Can Provide Dynamic Visualizations of the Anthropocene to Broaden Factually Based Public Understanding

ARThe Anthropocene Review, Published Online 15 July 2014

By Andrew Zolnai

“Provision of broadly accessible and spatially referenced visualizations of the nature and rate of change in the Anthropocene is an essential tool in communicating to policy makers and to the wider public, who generally have little or no contact with academic publications and often rely on media-based information, to form and guide opinion. Three examples are used to demonstrate the use of geo-referenced data and GIS-based map compilations to provide accurate and widely accessible visual portrayals of historical processes.  The first example shows the spread of Neolithic agriculture from Mesopotamia west and north across Europe over several millennia. The second plots the history of the drainage of the Fens (wetlands) in eastern England from the early seventeenth century onward. A third example illustrates one way in which releasing data in the public domain can lead to the enhancement of public data holdings.

Data posted directly on the internet (Zolnai, 2012) from sources discussed in the text: this map story has the abstract at left, the map at centre and the legend at rig ht. It is a synoptic view putting all information in the line of sight along with its geographical context. Panning left and right or zooming in and out helps orient the reader and facilitate a better grasp of the details.

Data posted directly on the internet (Zolnai, 2012) from sources discussed in the text: this map story has the abstract at left, the map at centre and the legend at right. It is a synoptic view putting all information in the line of sight along with its geographical context. Panning left and right or zooming in and out helps orient the reader and facilitate a better grasp of the details.

“A concluding discussion outlines ways in which the methodology illustrated may be applied to processes key to understanding the Anthropocene.”

Research Challenges to Understanding, Predicting, and Restoring Landscape Changes Identified

Nine research challenges and four research initiatives that are poised to advance the study of how Earth’s landscapes change were unveiled today in a new report by the National Research Council.  These challenges and initiatives could open the path to resolving environmental issues, from coastal erosion to landslides, by helping predict how processes such as wind, ice, water, tectonics, and living organisms drive changes in the Earth’s surface.

The development of new analytic and computing technologies and the heightened demand for scientific guidance in decision making concerning future landscape transformation and restoration have propelled research in Earth surface processes over the past two decades.  However, significant questions remain unanswered, which are addressed in these challenges and initiatives.

What does our planet’s past tell us about its future? The surface of the Earth records its own evolution, which scientists can examine through evidence in ice cores, sediments, and landforms.  Accelerating the ability for researchers to tap into that record could help determine how the surface environment alters through time and how it may change in the future.

How do geopatterns on Earth’s surface arise and what do they tell us about processes? From repeated patterns on sand dunes to similar shapes of barrier islands, myriad land patterns at all scales can be seen on the planet’s surface.  Scientists have found that these geopatterns often emerge spontaneously, evolve over time, and are resilient, as unstable patterns do not last for long periods.  Geopatterns provide a template for understanding many Earth surface processes, which could help scientists predict how the surface will respond to natural and human-induced changes.

How do landscapes influence and record climate and the movement of large pieces of the Earth’s crust? One of the advances in the earth sciences is the recognition of interactions between climate and the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates.  For example, in mountain ranges developed from converging tectonic plates, prevailing winds may force clouds, rain, and glaciers to remain on one side of the range, which could increase erosion.  Such concentrated erosion draws more rock upward from within the Earth, increasing the height of the range and further affecting local climate patterns.  Scientists are searching to quantify the interactions and feedbacks among landscapes, tectonics, climate, and life.  For instance, how much could climate change increase rainfall, which in turn would increase the frequency of erosion from landslides?

How does the biogeochemical reactor of the Earth’s surface respond to and shape landscapes on local to global scales? The chemical erosion and weathering of bedrock and soil are among the least understood of the geological processes.  They are often major factors in how landscapes change because of their effects on climate, groundwater and river chemistry, strength of rocks, erosion, and availability of nutrients in soils.  Gaining insight into the nutrient cycle essential to both living organisms and climate, for example, will allow scientists to address the effects of human-induced changes to land and groundwater.

What are the transport laws that govern the evolution of the Earth’s surface? Quantitative approaches are needed to define how and at what rates a process like erosion can shape the landscape.  Significant progress has been made in developing and applying mathematical formulas known as “transport laws” to gauge the rate at which soil is transferred or a river can cut through bedrock.  Nonetheless, scientists still need to establish the transport laws for processes such as landsliding, transport and deposit of mud, and glacial and chemical erosion.

How do ecosystems and landscapes co-evolve? Living organisms strongly influence the form and pace of surface erosion, and they control the nutrient cycle with simultaneous effects on climate, hydrology, erosion, and topography.  Coordinated efforts to identify connections among life forms, surface processes, and landscapes are under way at various field observatories.  However, greater knowledge is needed to develop predictive models and perform experiments that explore the causes, effects, rates, and magnitudes of life-landscape interactions.

What controls landscape resilience to change? Some areas of Earth’s surface are more vulnerable than others to change.  For example, polar and glacial regions are nearing or are in a state of flux predicted to continue with global warming.  Scientists need to better understand how rapid and abrupt changes occur and the factors and processes that make landscapes resilient to these changes.

How will Earth’s surface evolve in the new era? The term “Anthropocene” has been suggested to describe a new era in which humans have become dominant.  Understanding, predicting, and adjusting to changing landscapes increasingly altered by humans constitute pressing challenges, and science is far from developing a general theory of coupled human-natural systems.

How can science contribute to a sustainable Earth surface? With increasing scientific knowledge of the causes and long-term effects of human-induced changes to land, a consensus has emerged that at least some of these disrupted landscapes can and should be restored or redesigned.  Researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and the public have recently begun to examine the success and limitations of past restoration efforts.  Earth surface scientists can contribute to these efforts and provide guidance in future decisions regarding natural and managed landscapes.

In addition, the report proposes four research initiatives, derived from the nine challenges, to provide promising pathways for scientific guidance on issues related to planning, mitigation, and response to changes in the Earth’s surface now and in the future.  The four research areas would delve into understanding interacting landscapes and climate, the co-evolution of ecosystems and landscapes, quantitative reconstruction of landscape dynamics across time scales, and the future of landscapes in the Anthropocene.

Copies of Landscapes on the Edge are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

[Source: National Academies press release]

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.

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.”

Transitions and Tipping Points in Complex Environmental Systems

nsf_ac_ere1_fA new report from the National Science Foundation notes challenges and opportunities in responding to Earth’s rapidly changing environment.

“From Canada to Chile, from Kazakhstan to Kansas, we are witnessing a fast-changing planet. What will it look like in the years, decades and centuries to come?

“How far and in what ways can Earth’s systems be stressed before they reach tipping points, undergoing rapid transitions to new states–with unforeseen consequences?

“So asks a report released today by the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education (AC-ERE).

“The report, Transitions and Tipping Points in Complex Environmental Systems, finds both challenges and opportunities in the path to finding answers.”

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 and Global Design

“Man may perish by his own explosive and insidious inventions.  For an adjustment to them he leaves himself precious little time, and progressively less as his technological wizardry runs wild and rushes on.  If he is to survive at all, it cannot be through slow adjustment.  It will have to be through design more subtly considered and circumspect, through more cautious planning in advance.”

Richard Neutra, 1954

The current anthropogenic domination of earth systems cannot be overstated.  Once we as a species acknowledge our moral and environmental imperative to carefully and thoughtfully manage our planet for the health of all component earth systems and grapple with the ethical issues of geoengineering, we can move away from accidental, poorly-planned geoengineering and into an era of conscious geodesign at a global scale.  A GIS-based framework offers the best approach for understanding and addressing the breadth of climate change science issues in a holistic manner.  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.

Landscape architecture and urban and regional planning have taught us to analyze alternative development ideas in a broad environmental context, and GIS tools were a natural outgrowth of this technique; but to date these design concepts have yet to be fully applied at a truly global scale to help us to understand and respond to climate change challenges.

Mature Concepts, New Focus

“Design is the first signal of human intention … What is our intention as a species and how do we go about thinking about that?”

William McDonough, 2009

Michael Batty states that “(a) narrow but suitable definition of design as it pertains to geographic systems … is the process of generating physical artefacts which meet ‘agreed’ human (social and economic) goals pertaining to specific points or periods in time and space.”  He goes on to describe the design process as increasingly evolutionary, where human-initiated or -influenced systems grow and evolve in a manner and fashion similar to biological systems.  This growth and evolution is in response to ever-changing environments and their associated assemblages of constraints.

Reasoned design and management in the age of the anthropogenic earth is our moral imperative, but the biggest obstacle to our success is that we are not yet set up to work, or even think, in this way.  Brad Allenby notes that “(w)e lack solid data and analytical frameworks to make assertions about the costs, benefits, and normative assessments of different . . . practices”. GIS and the emerging field of geodesign are critical to the success of approaches such as earth systems management and engineering (ESEM) and other logical and rational models for dealing with the environmental and planning problems of ours and future generations.

Design considering place was at the core of Ian McHarg’s beliefs, and it is the basis for current research and development efforts in the emerging field of geodesign.  Geodesign borrows concepts from landscape architecture, environmental studies, geography, planning, sustainability, 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 at local, regional, and global scales.

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 primarily in the fields of environmental, regional, and urban planning.  To a certain extent, this is already done today by numerous GIS practitioners in fields like urban and regional planning and environmental management.  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.   With a debt of gratitude to Steinitz, the geodesign framework also lets us design and test various alternatives, helping us make the most educated and informed decisions about the best possible future.

When we talk of designing our future, we believe that combining the wealth of data available about our world with sophisticated analysis and management tools is the prescription for understanding and shaping the future of our planet—an anthropogenic future where advances in human society, technology, etc., are carefully designed in close collaboration with nature, resulting in the best of possible future worlds.  Moving forward, there are some guidelines we can follow to help leverage geospatial technologies in support of global design.

Guidelines for Global Design

“To live in a world subject to purposeful, planetwide change will not, I think, be quite the same as living in one being messed up by accident.  Unless geoengineering fails catastrophically … the relationship between people and their environment will have changed profoundly.”

Oliver Morton, 2009

A geodesign framework will provide a robust set of tools for design professionals to support the design of alternate future for our earth and its systems.  And the need for such tools has never been greater. We live in an ever more complex world, where our impact on the natural environment is massive and can no longer be ignored. People are starting to recognize the importance Richard Neutra placed on the inseparable relationship between humans and nature and to realize Ian McHarg’s vision of design with nature, and they want to act. Matt Ball notes that “(t)here is now a growing interest in combining design functionality with the broader geographical context that geospatial tools offer in order to engage more deeply in land-use planning.”

  1. Establish Geodesign as a Field of Study. To what extent are the fundamental spatial concepts that lie behind GIS relevant in design? To what extent can the fundamental spatial concepts of design be addressed with GIS? Is it possible to devise a curriculum to develop spatial thinking in both GIS and design? To begin developing answers to such questions, a specialist meeting on spatial concepts in GIS and design was held December 15–16, 2008, in Santa Barbara, California. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the potential for integrating design more fully into GIS, as well as the development of curriculum in spatial thinking. Spatial design is concerned primarily at project- and regional scales, while geodesign is concerned with similar issues but also at a global scale.  Further discussion is needed to fully develop these concepts and build a curriculum around them.
  2. Differentiate between Unconscious and Conscious Global Design. Until recently, development projects and other programs and policies affecting the environment have been mostly short-sighted, project-based, and exclusive.  We need to focus on longer-term issues that are global in nature and inclusive of multiple factors.  The primary difference is intent.  Conscious geodesign—carefully and thoughtfully manage our planet for the health of all component earth systems–lets us control the fate not just of the human race, but of the entire planet and all of its systems.
  3. Develop Robust Design Tools for GIS Environments. The experience GIS developers have gained while developing CAD integration tools and sketching tools has led to an appreciation of the power that could be derived by associating drawing tools, symbology, data models, process models, and other design tools into a single, integrated framework for performing geodesign. Having “back of the napkin” design sketches available for immediate analysis and feedback should be a primary area of research and development over the coming years for geospatial application developers.
  4. Promote GIS as a Foundational Design System. Integration of design tools with existing GIS functionality is important, but it’s only the first step. Ultimately, we need to expand the application of GIS to the point that it is a foundational design system. As Richard Neutra did with architecture in the 1950s, we need to advance a framework for design and planning that not just incorporates but also embraces technology; science; and, ultimately, nature in a system that helps us design and choose the best alternative futures.


“We are as gods, and we might as well get good at it.”

Stewart Brand, 1968

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 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 these activities.  An GIS-based framework for global design offers the best chance at gaining a true, scientific understanding about earth systems and for making thoughtful, informed design decisions and proposing alternatives that allow humans and nature to coexist more harmoniously.