Give Me the Gist of It: The Role of Geospatial Information Sciences and Technologies in the Environmental Sector


The Colombian Amazon shown through the lens of LiDar mapping for the United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) Program.
Source: Carnegie Institution for Science (2012)

Technologies such as geographic information systems, GIS, and light detection and ranging, LiDAR, are helping environmental scientists make advances in their fields.

There are already many projects around the world where GIS and digital mapping are being used to manage competing interests, particularly in developing nations where environmental protection of delicate ecosystems is key to public health but development is key to economic growth. This often creates a conflict. Yet GIS can work to bridge this conflict: GIS maps are interactive and for the end user, a visual image is the best output. Not only can we manage sustainability with GIS, but in turn it is also helping us to see the individual needs of the various ecosystems around the world.

The Woods Hole Research Center, founded by ecologist George Woodwell in 1985, works to merge and communicate environmental research in academia and practice. As stated on their website, scientists at the WHRC have contributed to every IPCC Assessment Report. In their 2014 report on environmental management, the mapping technology company Esri featured some of the work done by the Woods Hole Research Center’s researchers, in which LiDAR data and GIS mapping was utilized in order to analyze the density of biomass as well as wildlife habitat corridors across the tropics.

LiDAR utilizes lasers as opposed to radar and sonar to detect, range, and map an environment, as well as scanners and a GPS receiver. To put it simply, lasers emitted from aircrafts, commonly from satellites, helicopters, or airplanes, hit the earth’s surface, and bounce back to the scanner and the receiver. Data from the lasers, such as vegetation height and density, are then recorded.

Because of this research, the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change has accredited their work on stabilizing the earth’s climate systems to the Woods Hole Research Center. One of the programs of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change is its Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation project, also known as REDD+. The program’s purpose, as shown on the REDD+ website, is to “create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests by offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.” As of today, there are forty countries that have been supported in the development of national forest monitoring systems. Panama, for example, began working together with the REDD+ program to help some of its indigenous groups monitor their forests and the techniques used to manage them. These communities – the Bribri, Bugle, Embera, Guna, Naso Tjër-Di, Ngäbe and Wounaan – began partnering with the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change in 2016 to survey their forests with the help of technologies such as drones and remote sensing. Volunteers from local communities are taught how to pilot drones and use aerial data to create digital maps of their lands. These drones also assist these indigenous groups in monitoring their crops and preventing their natural resources from mining and logging companies. The obtaining of these biomass density measurements had previously been a tedious and costly task. With the assistance of LiDAR, biomass densities can be collected at a faster rate. LiDAR data is reasonably accurate in data collection as compared to the yielding of field measurements.

Geospatial technologies can aid governments and researchers from all across the globe. The open-source GIS application, QGIS, is a tool used by UC Berkeley doctoral candidate, Brian Ikaika Klein. After learning how to use QGIS through workshops hosted at UC Berkeley’s D-Lab, he is now able to use the geospatial program to analyze and plot data, such as information on mining locations and census data of miners in Madagascar that he obtained during fieldwork in the Indian Ocean island nation.

Klein studies the political economy of energy and extractive industries in developing countries, and is focusing on questions related to the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sector in Madagascar for his dissertation research. Using the QGIS mapping software has allowed him to better understanding the spatial distribution of ASM, and how its activities are governed. The doctoral student has found that public authority over mining is fragmented between a wide array of actors including municipal governments and neighborhood councils, local resource management committees, law enforcement, landowners, claim owners, and miners themselves. Likening Madagascar’s mining industry today with California’s Gold Rush in the 19th century, Klein is able to see “which institutions and people have authority over mining plots, and why.” Although he views this tool as useful, the researcher does acknowledge the politics involved with mapping jurisdictions and geospatial technologies, and sounds a note of caution regarding the ways in which maps can be instruments of power.

When pondering the creation of a new technology to aid him in his fieldwork, Klein explains the difficulties of exploring the mining tunnels, wishing he was able to carry a tool that recorded not only the routes taken in these tunnels, but their dimensions as well. The ability to map the underground–where many of the conflicts Klein studies occur – would provide valuable insight regarding miners’ practices in relation to surface claims, he says.

Meanwhile, Victoria Glynn, a 4th-year Environmental Sciences major who is also minoring in Science and Math Education (CalTeach), has found the geographic information system ArcGIS a bountiful resource for her honors thesis. Glynn elaborates, “My honors thesis studies how land use change in the Central Coast of California is affecting bird health. I used ArcGIS to determine the proportion of various land use types, such as oak woodlands and agriculture, within the study system. I downloaded photographs from the National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) and used them to digitize the landscape within a one-kilometer buffer of the farms. GIS and satellite imagery allowed me to quickly scrutinize differences between farms without needing to ground-truth.”

Glynn will be heading to McGill University in September to pursue a PhD in biology, where she will be partnering with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama to work to uncover how DNA methylation patterns in coral are being affected by climate change. Although this project will be molecular in nature, GIS will allow her to visualize the location of the reefs and determine coastline site characteristics. On this upcoming endeavor, she says, “I hope to learn and incorporate satellite altimetry into my work, which is useful in determining ocean currents and wave heights.”

For 4th-year undergraduate Roxi Shiu who is currently working on her own thesis, GIS assists her in determining whether Ford GoBikes in the communities surrounding UC Berkeley’s campus promote environmental stewardship in its students. Majoring in both Environmental Sciences and Conservation and Resource Studies with a focus in Environmental Philosophy and Ethics, Shiu’s thesis work uses data taken from surveys she conducted, she explains, “to research the social aspects of environmental sustainability. I’m looking at the difference between perception and practice, and if students are choosing to ride the bikes to reduce their carbon footprint or if it’s just an efficient and convenient resource, with no consideration towards environmental sustainability .”

Geospatial information sciences and technologies have come a long way since its creation by Roger Tomlinson in Canada, in which he created the Canada Geographical Information System (CGIS) as a way for him to analyze data about land usage throughout the country. As technology is continually progressing, its role in the environmental field expands, allowing scientists to continue their research with ecological management.

Olga Rozmarynowska

Olga Rozmarynowska is a junior transfer from the University of California, Santa Cruz, doubling in Society and Environment and Classical Civilizations. Her research interests include climate change mitigation and energy policies in developing regions as well as Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History”. In her spare time, Olga is a mediocre harpist and hornist, Epsilon Eta’s favorite social activities intern, and is always excited to talk about National Geographic Explorers, geospatial technologies, volcanoes, and the adventures of Carmen Sandiego. Give her a holler and send her some of your favorite songs at olgaroz@berkeley.edu. Olga Rozmarynowska is an editor for the Environmental Justice and Politics team.

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