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Winter 1997

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 95 > Article

The GIS Landscape
by David Hart

While road maps show the way from Point A to Point B, they're not much help to researchers trying to re-create the past or plan the future of a geographic region. Instead, today's researchers often turn to a geographic information system (GIS), which uses computers to organize and analyze all sorts of data tied to geographic locations.

Plus, they don't have to be folded.

"A geographic information system is much more than a map," said Roy Welch, founder and director of UGA's Center for Remote Sensing and Mapping Science. "A GIS includes a layered map' database in digital format and a set of computer tools that can combine the layers into a variety of maps that show, for example, projected population distributions, soil erosion patterns, changes in plant cover and optimum sites for business locations."

The information stored in a GIS can range from dirt samples to remote sensing data. In general, remote sensing uses high-tech eyeballs that record what they see from a distance. While by this definition the human eye is also a remote sensor, satellite images and color infrared aerial photos are more common forms of remote sensing data.

Over the past 10 years, the center has explored new ways to integrate GIS and remote sensing techniques. The Everglades project is the largest region the center has tackled in such detail, but by no means the only one.

"We've been quite successful in developing applications in disciplines such as geography, ecology, forestry and so forth," Welch said. "The center has been a leader in the development of geographic information system techniques for studying natural resource management, soil erosion and global mapping."

For managing natural resources, the center has applied its tools to a number of areas that are threatened by development. In a current project, Welch and geography graduate student Jonathan Smith are working with The Nature Conservancy to create a GIS database of the BOSAWAS Reserve in northern Nicaragua. Using this database, which combines satellite images, Russian maps and fieldwork, The Nature Conservancy and Nicaraguan government agencies will establish the boundaries of a protected reserve.

At the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, the center's researchers created a GIS to provide details on the topography, land use and vegetation on the island and surrounding marshes. The GIS included aerial photographs dating to 1953, so the researchers could see how the marshes changed over the years. The GIS helps researchers on Sapelo preserve some of the last unaltered salt marshes on the Atlantic Coast.

For studying soil erosion, the center worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop GIS methods for measuring soil erosion, which is linked closely to the flow of fertilizers and pesticides into waterways. With the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the center developed a model of how sediment travels through the watershed, and is now integrating GIS techniques and precision farming methods.

On a global scale, Welch and the center scientists are working with Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to create digital elevation models for the entire planet. This GIS database will help set priorities for the Japanese-built Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer, which will begin a five-year mission in 1998 to record the planet's surface . The database will help pinpoint unmapped or poorly mapped areas of the Earth's surface for which elevation models are needed. Accurate information on land elevation is vital for research into such topics as global climate change.

In these and other areas, GIS databases are providing the road maps for researchers asking how the Earth's future will unfold.


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