ArcUser Online

October - December 2004
Search ArcUser:
ArcUser Main Current Issue Previous Issues Subscribe Advertise Submit An Article

E-mail to a Friend

Working Together Protecting the Environment

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

-John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

The degradation of natural resources has effects that can be both persistent and often unexpectedly pervasive. Mining activities dating back more than 100 years are still contributing to watershed pollution in northwestern Pennsylvania. The introduction of the European earthworm, an exotic and seemingly innocuous species, is actually undermining hardwood forests in Minnesota and elsewhere in the United States. These examples, drawn from articles in this issue of ArcUser, illustrate that events removed in time or changes in an ecosystem that seem trivial can have significant consequences.

click to enlarge
GIS is being used to prioritize the removal of thousands dead trees in the San Bernardino mountains that pose a serious fire threat.

Geography, the most crosscutting of disciplines, is fundamental to the process of understanding and successfully protecting the environment. As the language of geography, GIS helps conceptualize and communicate information within a geographic context and promotes the collaboration necessary for dealing with the complexity inherent in environmental issues.

Shared History

It is nearly impossible to separate the development of GIS from its role in environmental protection. A vast inventory of Canada's productive lands for land use and planning purposes in the early 1960s led to the creation of GIS by Roger Tomlinson. GIS applications developed for environmental protection continue to be some of the most innovative.

By providing a framework for both data integration and analysis, GIS is a technology suited like no other for dealing with the problems caused by an increasingly complex, crowded, and challenging world. Within a GIS framework, patterns, relationships, and processes can be perceived. In an era of information overload, GIS provides a perspective that promotes greater understanding of environmental problems and a sound basis for decision making.

Challenges to Sustainability

Of the many challenges to the earth's sustainability, some of the most pressing include desertification, global warming, and declining biodiversity in many regions. A brief look at efforts to deal with desertification demonstrates the applicability of GIS.

Desertification is a land degradation process resulting from a combination of poor land management practices and natural causes. It occurs not only at the edges of deserts but also in areas far from climatic deserts. Decreases in plant and animal life, coupled with accelerated soil deterioration, characterize areas undergoing desertification.

A popular misconception is that droughts cause desertification. While droughts may increase the rate of land degradation for non-irrigated lands that are being overutilized, other factors—such as overgrazing, woodcutting, cultivation practices that leave land vulnerable to water and wind erosion, and water management practices that result in salinization or waterlogging—are underlying causes.

The effects of desertification can be widespread and devastating. In the United States during the 1930s, poor farming practices in the Great Plains combined with a drought to cause the Dust Bowl. Millions of people living in the Plains states were forced to abandon their homes and farms. More recently, desertification, exacerbated by drought, caused the deaths of more than 100,000 people and 12 million cattle in the Sahel of West Africa between 1968 and 1973. In both cases, population and economic pressures led to land management practices that were not sustainable.

Although desertification has been going on for more than 1,000 years, it was not recognized until the 20th century when easy expansion into new lands came to an end. The advent of satellite imagery, coupled with the collection of spatial data, has helped demonstrate the impact of desertification and provide the data needed for improving the situation. However, GIS not only allows researchers to view and manage land cover, natural vegetation, soil types, climate, topography, and socioeconomic data but also to analyze it all within one framework. GIS is proving a most effective tool for studying this complex phenomenon.

Driving GIS Innovation

One of the driving forces for GIS innovation has been the need for tools that aid in understanding and protecting the environment. With ArcGIS, researchers, policy makers, and others have a complete set of robust tools for exploring and documenting the environment that encompasses data capture, management, analysis, reporting, and dissemination. GIS application areas include biodiversity, environmental law, hazard and risk analysis, impact assessment, oceanology, pollution management, regulatory compliance, resource management, site remediation, and waste management.

Enhanced map production with ArcGIS has gone far beyond paper maps and includes digital dissemination of both data and maps through interactive Web mapping, Web services, and GIS Web portals. ArcGIS Publisher and ArcReader supply a simple and inexpensive method of digital distribution of datasets and maps.

Continued on page 2

Contact Us | Privacy | Legal | Site Map