Learning About the Environment and Making Smarter Decisions Using Web-Based Mapping Tools

Earthzine2016 Monthly Focus Topics, Original, Themed Articles

By Joseph Kerski, Ph.D. Education Manager, Esri

Instructor, University of Denver

Because environmental issues take place in specific locations and often exhibit specific spatial patterns, they can be better understood through maps. Map-based analysis can help planners, analysts, and the general public better understand relationships and trends between variables, scales, and regions. Map-based analysis helps people question, visualize, assess, and interpret data to understand our complex and ever-changing world. Mapping technologies have evolved over the past half century to today‰Ûªs platform that includes mobile, web, and desktop tools. Mapping technologies are tied to powerful cloud-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) databases and spatial statistical tools. These technologies are supported by increasingly rich map and data content contributed to by international to local government agencies, nonprofit organizations, private industry, and even ordinary citizens through crowdsourcing initiatives.

Despite the ever-increasing capabilities of GIS, the maps created from GIS are increasingly easy to access and use. They can be used online and on mobile devices. Maps are being used to understand the major issues of our time, illustrated by the citizen science-based Mapping impacts of Global Change, and for important initiatives, such as green sustainability campus programs such as this one at the University of Virginia. They are increasingly able to incorporate real-time data, such as wildfires, streamflow, weather, and traffic.

But maps also can help people make smarter and more sustainable everyday decisions. åÊLet‰Ûªs say you were thinking about having some solar panels installed at your home. What is the solar potential in the region in which you live? åÊYou could use this map to study the kilowatt hours per square meter per day for your area. Click on the legend so that you understand what the colors represent. Why does the solar potential have the pattern that it does? åÊWhat is the influence of local landforms, climate, and latitude on the solar potential? åÊThen, use the ‰ÛÏShow Contents of Map‰Û tool to examine the other layers included in the map. Where are the existing solar plants of 10 megawatts or greater? åÊWhere are others planned or under construction? åÊWhy do these plants have the pattern that they do? åÊWhat factors, such as land ownership, existing power grid, state or federal energy policy and regulations, the availability and cost of non-solar energy sources nearby, are most important?

Use this map to analyze the solar potential for your region and existing and planned solar power generating stations. Image Credit: Esri

Use this map to analyze the solar potential for your region and existing and planned solar power generating stations. Image Credit: Esri

Use this map to analyze the solar potential for your region and existing and planned solar power generating stations. Image Credit: Esri

Use this map to analyze the solar potential for your region and existing and planned solar power generating stations. Image Credit: Esri

You can do more than simply look at maps in ArcGIS Online‰ÛÓyou can modify and customize them. You can save them and share them. Select ‰ÛÏModify Map‰Û, and use the ‰ÛÏAdd‰Û button to search ArcGIS Online for ‰ÛÏUSA Major Cities.‰Û åÊAdd this layer to the map. Based on the distribution of these major cities that are now visible, the existing and planned solar plants, and the solar potential, answer the following question: åÊåÊIf you were planning to develop a new solar plant, where would you locate it, and why? åÊåÊ

At the local level, what is the solar potential for rooftops in your community? åÊTo help residents make those kinds of decisions, the city of Minneapolis created this map of commercial and industrial solar photovoltaic energy potential. Halfway across the world, this map of South Africa shows the optimal angle for positioning photovoltaic arrays.

How is the urban greenway situation in your community? åÊWhere have existing greenways been established, and where do you think additional ones need to be located? You could use ArcGIS Online to create an urban greenway map for your community, as was done in Cheyenne. You could think about an art trail as was done in New York state, or you could use maps to support the creation of a public art project for your community as was done with cowboy boots in Wimberley Texas here with a story map.

This map of urban greenways for Cheyenne could be generated for any community to determine existing greenways and how they might be expanded or linked. Image Credit: Jeff Wiggins

This map of urban greenways for Cheyenne could be generated for any community to determine existing greenways and how they might be expanded or linked. Image Credit: Jeff Wiggins

Increasingly, 3D tools are being used in GIS based maps soåÊthat important 3D considerations might be incorporated into environmental planning. This 3D application for developing a brownfield in Portland considers potential shadows cast by the proposed building, and this 3D application in New Zealand looks at the shadows cast by surrounding mountains at different times of day on the winter solstice (June 21). This could be used to determine how to site a solar panel, or how much winter sun a park or a backyard garden will receive.

In which ecoregion and climate zone are you living? åÊHow many major world ecoregions have you visited? åÊThe North American Environmental Atlas uses web GIS technology for you to learn about the ‰ÛÏbig picture,‰Û as well as watersheds, human impact on protected areas, industrial pollution, land cover, conservation areas, and more. åÊOr, you can examine world ecoregions using the Ecological Regions of the World map, which uses bioclimate, landforms, rock type, and land cover to create the first map of its kind.

Think about how critical water is to your community and those around the world. In which watershed are you located? åÊStart with www.arcgis.com, create a new map, and use the Add button to add the World Hydro Reference overlay. What is the relationship of watersheds to local topography around the world? åÊThis map layer is scale dependent, so as you zoom in, you will move from large drainage basins to local watersheds. What is the influence of major rivers and water sources on settlement patterns in your region, or on different areas around the world? åÊWhat sources does your community use to obtain its water? åÊWhat efforts is your community making to conserve water? åÊ

Planning more livable communities increasingly uses 2D and 3D GIS technologies. Image Credit: Esri

Planning more livable communities increasingly uses 2D and 3D GIS technologies. Image Credit: Esri

Map your own behavior. Go through your closet, look at the tags on your clothing, and create a web map in ArcGIS Online of where your clothing came from, or where all of your electronic devices originated. Map your food expenditures and whether you eat at home more frequently or out more frequently, comparing your own behavior to this food expenditure map. åÊInvestigate the concept of a food desert with this supermarket access map. åÊIs there something you could do to advocate for fresh food in your community? åÊVisit a farmer‰Ûªs market and use this map to guide you.

Get out into the field. Explore a local wetland using this ‰ÛÏGreat Wetlands of the World‰Û storymap as a guide for learning more about the value of and location of wetlands. Or, get involved in cleaning up a wetland near where you live, or get involved in ensuring that a wetland near you is protected. On the topic of protection, you could examine the endangered species on the Sixth Great Extinction Map or get involved in Jane Goodall‰Ûªs Roots and Shoots program. åÊYou could create a story map that includes photographs and captions in the field with your smartphone using the Snap2Map app, or collect data using Survey123 or the Collector for ArcGIS. Many of these apps support citizen science work, where you join others in your community to collectively map something, such as tree species (as was done in Washington, D.C.), trash, pedestrian or vehicle counts, or light poles. You could map your journeys using output from an ordinary fitness app such here with Runkeeper, or a GPS app such as MyTracks or Motion X GPS.

Determining shadows and sun at different times of the day and year, such as for Queenstown, New Zealand, can be accomplished through the application of mapping technologies. Image Credit: Esri, LINZ, DigitalGlobe

Determining shadows and sun at different times of the day and year, such as for Queenstown, New Zealand, can be accomplished through the application of mapping technologies. Image Credit: Esri, LINZ, DigitalGlobe

How clean are the streets in your community? åÊIf you mapped them, would the condition of the streets show a pattern? Look at this Los Angeles‰Ûª clean streets mapping application. åÊThe map is a part of Esri‰Ûªs Living Atlas of the World, a growing collection of authoritative content submitted by organizations throughout the world and served in the ArcGIS platform via a web browser.

Participate in a ‰ÛÏBioBlitz‰Û where you join others to document all of the plant and animals species in a specific area over a 24- or 48-hour period. This year, BioBlitz events are being held in the national parks of the United States to commemorate the National Park Service‰Ûªs 100th anniversary. Follow some of the procedures recently detailed for bringing in BioBlitz data into ArcGIS Online. When complete, you could document your discoveries by creating a story map as was done for BioBlitz at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

If this piques your interest about the potential of maps for environmental purposes, you can read case studies of GIS making a positive difference on our planet, from local scales to the global scale, from Croatia‰Ûªs sustainable fishing program to Italy‰Ûªs hazardous incidence response to setting aside a national park in Afghanistan, from identifying priority areas for crops to food security, and many more critical issues of our 21st Century world. And if all of this makes you want to go still further, then pursue a career where geotechnologies play a prominent role.

BioBlitz efforts, such as this one in Hawaii, can be enhanced through mapping of data gathered by ordinary citizens. Image Credit: Esri, National Park Service

BioBlitz efforts, such as this one in Hawaii, can be enhanced through mapping of data gathered by ordinary citizens. Image Credit: Esri, National Park Service