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 http://www.nap.edu.  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.

model1

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.

model2

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.

Conclusion

“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.

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.

Towards a GIS-Based Framework for Climate Change Studies

“…a better world is the common goal all of us—geographers, planners, scientists, and others—have been striving for.  Although we’ve made a lot of progress in building the (technological) infrastructure to help us accomplish this monumental task, we’re still not quite there yet.”
–Jack Dangermond (Dangermond 2009)

A GIS-based approach to climate change studies provides a framework for understanding and addressing the entire breadth of climate change science issues in a holistic manner.  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, yet often create artificial boundaries between disciplines that can be detrimental to the understanding of larger issues.  While advancing the understanding of each of these individual systems is vitally important, ultimately we need to bring all of these systems together, to understand how they are interrelated and dependent upon one other.

Such a framework provides a base enablement system for global data management, visualization, analysis, modeling, and ultimately design.  In order to move climate change studies from a massive collection of unrelated or loosely linked endeavors towards an open, integrated framework, there are four areas we need to change: data, models, organization, and mindset.

Various frameworks and programs already address a number of the issues and challenges in establishing such a framework.  Careful review of the approaches to data, models, organization and mindset in these frameworks and programs will help us to identify concepts and components that can be leveraged—as well as gaps that can be filled—by a GIS-based framework for climate change studies.

The review below presents some representative examples, and is not meant to present a comprehensive inventory of such frameworks and programs.

Data

OpenStreetMap.  The OpenStreetMap project leverages volunteers to perform on-the-ground surveys with their personal GPS and other equipment to create a global base map that is freely distributed and can be edited by anyone.  The non-profit OpenStreetMap Foundation provides support for the project, but does not “control” the project per se. 

OpenStreetMap is a model for creating a global data set by citizen volunteers.  Organizationally it provides a good example of a successful structure for managing the creation and distribution of the data, as well as maintaining quality standards.

Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS).  The notion of a system of systems for geospatial information was first suggested by the National Academy of Sciences Mapping Science Committee and was referred to as the National Spatial Data Infrastructure. More recently, this architecture has been adopted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others as part of their architecture for the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). GEOSS serves as a global framework for integrating the large number of global remote-sensing systems into a loosely coupled network available to many participants, providing decision-support tools to a wide range of users.

GSDI.  GIS has proven to be an important and reliable tool for management of spatial information at all geographic levels, from local to global. Over the past 15 years, a number of national, regional, and international organizations have moved towards a vision of building a Global Spatial Data Infrastructure (GSDI) for the sharing of spatial data. The GSDI Association and its membership are responsible for promoting this framework, with a goal of mapping the globe at a resolution of 1 km or better, and including information on a wide variety of geographic features.

Models

Standalone and GIS-based Models.  An ever-growing number of models currently exist for abstracting, simulating, and understanding complex details of physical, biological, and social systems and subsystems (Goodchild 2005).   The domains of the individual modeling packages vary widely, from soils to hydrology, from socioeconomics to land-use transportation (Wegner 2005, Batty 2005, Maidment 2005).  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 (Maguire 2005).

Earth System Modeling Framework (ESMF) .  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.”  (UCAR ND)

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.  However, ESMF is primarily focused on sharing of code and models, not data and workflows.

Organization

Climate Collaboratorium.  The Climate Collaboratorium is a project of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Collective Intelligence in the Sloan School of Management.  The Climate Collaboratorium project aims to leverage new information technology and social media to bring together large numbers of like-minded yet geographically and socially dispersed individuals to collaborate on issues surrounding the global climate change debate.  Using what they term collective intelligence, Malone and Klein hope that this framework will “focus … on a possible use of such a system with a particularly high social return: drawing on the best human and computational resources available to develop government policies about climate change.” (Malone and Klein 2007)  The Climate Collaboratorium project hopes to show that adopting a framework that is decentralized yet carefully managed can be an effective method to approach large, resource-intensive problems such as global climate change. (Malone 2009)

Planet Action.  Planet Action is a not-for-profit collaborative initiative launched in June 2007 by Spot Image. Its purpose is to encourage the earth observation industry and professional GIS communities to address climate change by supporting projects that investigate and assess climate change environmental impacts in five areas of focus: human dimensions and habitation, drought and water resources, vegetation and ecosystems, oceans, and ice and snow cover. By assisting in and funding projects that will support understanding and action on environmental impacts, the Planet Action initiative hopes to strengthen international cooperation and response to climate change problems.

Planet Action projects must meet certain criteria before qualifying for support. Each project must assess climate change-related impacts and issues and initiate a course of action. Accepted projects must also incorporate good scientific understanding, resources, and methods. The Planet Action project is an example of private industry leaders coming together to tackle global issues usually associated with the realm of governments and NGOs.

CPDN and APS@home .  Citizen scientists are people who have a strong interest in some facet of science, but pursue this interest outside of mainstream academic, research, and industrial organizations.  These self-directed individuals might very well be using their own resources, working in their garages to develop “the next big thing.” But more often they are networked, working together with fellow citizen scientists. And this is where they become a powerful force to be taken seriously within the scientific community. Scientists, and “professionals doing science,” often are the ones organizing these citizen science networks; they realize the great value a group of eager volunteers can bring to a project.

A good, although somewhat controversial (depending on your belief in intelligent extraterrestrial life) example of a mass of volunteers carefully organized to work on an overwhelmingly humongous project is SETI@home.  As a volunteer, you download some software that utilizes the “idle time” on your home computer to scan through reams of radio telescope data and search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. If nothing else, it has served as a model for bringing large numbers of volunteers (more than five million participants worldwide) together to work collectively on a massive task.

Closer to home, CPDN and APS@home are two distributed computing projects with an earth science spin. CPDN is investigating how small changes affect climate models. APS@home is looking at atmospheric components of climate change. Although public participation in both CPDN and APS@home is not nearly at the same scale as SETI@home, the potential is certainly there.

Is there an opportunity for the citizen scientist to leverage geospatial technologies in their quest for knowledge, entertainment, and contributing to society? Absolutely. With the relatively recent arrival of powerful (and free!) geospatial visualization tools such as Google Earth, ArcGIS Explorer, and NASA World Wind, it is now easier than ever for the citizen scientist to have some fun with maps while making a potentially important scientific contribution.

Amassing large numbers of volunteers to work on geospatial problems such as climate change is already taking place as shown by the CPDN and APS@home examples. What is needed next is something at a much larger scale, where not just physical, but also biological, social, cultural, economic, and political data and models are integrated to give a more accurate depiction of the complexities inherent in the anthropogenic Earth.

First we need to create an environment that successfully brings together a plethora of data sources and modeling systems—a noble vision for GIS, but not something to be tackled by citizen scientists. Once the data and technology is in place, and a clear framework is established, then comes the opportunity to organize a large group of volunteers who would do the “grunt work” of tackling one of the biggest challenges facing us.

Imagine a framework where tens or even hundreds of thousands of citizen scientists log in to a web site and download geospatial data sets and work task lists, then using a focused desktop geospatial application they also downloaded, they run different analysis and modeling scenarios as defined in the task list…then upload the results of their analysis back to the main data repository.

If properly structured and managed, such a project could significantly advance our understanding of the planet. At this scale, it would be difficult if not impossible to pull off without the participation of citizen scientists. They are out there, anxious to help… just waiting for us to create the framework.

Mindset

Earth Systems Engineering & Management (ESEM).  The relatively new field of earth systems engineering and management (ESEM) concerns itself with the design, engineering, analysis, and management of complex earth systems. ESEM takes a holistic view of multiple issues affecting our earth—not only taking environmental, social, and other considerations into account up front in the design process, but also looking at challenges from an adaptive systems approach, where ongoing analysis feeds back in to the continual management of the system.  (Dangermond 2009)

Braden Allenby, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University and one of ESEM’s founders, often emphasizes the undeniably dominant role humans have in earth systems. “We live in a world that is fundamentally different from anything that we have known in the past,” says Allenby. “It is a world dominated by one species, its activities and technologies, its cultures, and the integrated effects of its historical evolution.” (Allenby 2009)  Ian McHarg was already moving in this direction in the 1960s, and today we understand that it is even more important to emphasize the anthropogenic elements of earth systems. (McHarg 1969)  In other words, at this stage of ecological evolution, humans are a significant, if not dominating, component of the natural environment, and all problems need to be addressed and decisions made with anthropogenic elements in the forefront.

Allenby sees reasoned design and management in the age of the anthropogenic earth as our moral imperative, but the biggest obstacle to our success is that we are not set up to work, or even think, in this way. “We lack solid data and analytical frameworks to make assertions about the costs, benefits, and normative assessments of different … practices” (Allenby 2005). And this is why GIS integrated with design is critical to the success of approaches such as ESEM and other logical and rational models for dealing with the environmental and planning problems of ours and future generations.  (Dangermond 2009)

Anthropogenic Biomes.  Biomes are geographic areas sharing similar biological characteristics.  Anthropogenic factors are now a major, if not primary, contributor to biomes and other methods for classifying features and functions of earth systems.

The concept of anthropogenic biomes “offer(s) a new way to understand our living planet by describing the way humans have reshaped its ecolog(y)” (Ellis and Ramankutty 2007).  Conventional methods of representing biomes on maps are no longer applicable in an the age of the Anthropocene, and Ellis and Ramankutty note that ”[b]iomes derived from global patterns of human interaction with ecosystems may be a stronger model of global ecological patterns & processes.”

Anthropogenic biomes provide us with a framework for seamlessly integrating human factors in to natural systems, a necessary feature of an all-inclusive modeling framework for our planet.

References

Allenby, Braden, 2005.  Biomass Management Systems.  In Reconstructing Earth, 2005. http://www.lincolncenter.asu.edu/files/documents/centerprg_pacing_paper_metaphysics.pdf

Batty, Michael , 2005. Socioeconomic Applications. In D.J. Maguire, M. Batty, and M.F. Goodchild, editors, GIS, Spatial Analysis, and Modeling. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press, pp. 147–149.

Dangermond, Jack, 2009.  GIS: Designing Our Future.  ArcNews, Summer 2009.

Ellis, Erle C., and Ramankutty, Navin.  Anthropogenic Biomes: A Framework for Earth Science and Ecology in the 21st Century.  American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, December 10-14, 2007, San Francisco, California. http://ecotope.org/people/ellis/presentations/ellis_agu_2007_12_13_for_web.ppt

Goodchild, Michael F., 2005. GIS and Modeling Overview. In D.J. Maguire, M. Batty, and M.F. Goodchild, editors, GIS, Spatial Analysis, and Modeling. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press, pp. 1–18.

Maguire, David J., 2005. Towards a GIS Platform for Spatial Analysis and Modeling. In D.J. Maguire, M. Batty, and M.F. Goodchild, editors, GIS, Spatial Analysis, and Modeling. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press, pp. 19–39.

Maidment, David R., 2005. Hydrologic Modeling. In D.J. Maguire, M. Batty, and M.F. Goodchild, editors, GIS, Spatial Analysis, and Modeling. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press, pp. 319–332.

Malone, Thomas W., 2009.  Can Collective Intelligence Save the Planet? May 5, 2009 http://www.climatebiz.com/blog/2009/05/05/can-collective-intelligence-save-planet

Malone, Thomas W., and Klein, Mark, 2007. Harnessing Collective Intelligence to Address Global Climate Change.  In Innovations.  Summer 2007, Vol. 2, No. 3, Pages 15-26  http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/itgg.2007.2.3.15

McHarg, Ian, 1969.  Design with Nature.

UCAR ND.  About ESMF.  University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (http://www.esmf.ucar.edu/about_us/index.shtml)

Wegner, Michael, 2005. Urban Land-Use transportation Models. In D.J. Maguire, M. Batty, and M.F. Goodchild, editors, GIS, Spatial Analysis, and Modeling. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press, pp. 203–220.

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.