GIS: Bringing attention to an underutilized tool in conservation.

Image by TheVRChris | flickr.com

Image by TheVRChris | flickr.com

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is widely used within many disciplines, ranging from earth sciences to public health, and is becoming increasingly recognized by various sectors as a beneficial and necessary tool to advance business and simplify everyday tasks.  Regardless of whether GIS is used to track select addresses, conduct hydrological modeling, map a fuel spill, or plan a hiking route, it is highly recommended that the fundamental concepts and functions of GIS be understood.

GIS, in summary, projects geographic information onto a map.  To conduct advanced evaluations of this information, GIS can be combined with spatial analysis, which extends beyond coordinate points and distance measurements.  While some GIS maps are typically 2D (e.g., road maps, world maps), other spatial maps combined with GIS may be more useful in 3D format, including terrain maps and weather maps.  GIS maps combined with spatial analysis are usually used in data and resource management, where information can be monitored, dissected, and predicted.

For instance, one major organization that readily utilizes GIS is the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in order to investigate and communicate information about volcanic eruptions, water resources, and even climate change.  Given the difficulty in predicting and managing natural disasters and other natural phenomena, GIS is a very useful tool for helping to predict and assess future risks.

Conservation biology is another field of research that frequently uses GIS, both in the academic and professional world.  Given the threats of increased environmental degradation and climate change, there remains a high risk of events such as species loss and pollution of our air and water. Therefore, regions identified as high risk for environmental decline can be mapped and managed efficiently using GIS tools.  We must keep in mind that humans are also considered an integral part of many – if not all – ecosystems, and we cannot ignore the stresses that we put on our surroundings.  GIS can also be used to educate others on the importance of maintaining environmental integrity with the added bonus of visual information, which may be the most practical and efficient way to communicate the status of our environment to the public.  

The Florida Department of Transportation uses GIS to integrate transportation systems, thereby reducing road kills, identifying species hot spots, and locating important habitat areas. Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) (not to be confused with Esri, the major software ArcGIS developer!), is a non-profit organization that supports GIS utilization in conservation areas, providing GIS resources and grants for critical projects. ESRI also conducts a Conservation Mapping Contest for students and professionals –the most recent grand prize project examined green turtle nesting sites around the world, a GIS-based project out of Duke University.

GIS can also be applied to species conservation efforts.  In 2014, one hundred years after the Passenger Pigeon became extinct, the Audubon Birds Climate Report was released by the National Audubon Society (NAS), a non-profit organization specializing in bird conservation.  North American regions are mapped using GIS to show seasonal ranges for various North American bird species, such as the common loon and chestnut-collared longspur.  These databases are directly supported by contributions from the public through events like the Data for Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), where bird counts are conducted by citizens across Canada and United States.

Similarly, Bird Studies Canada (BSC) is another organization dedicated to bird conservation.  Province-specific programs are conducted to better understand bird behaviour and habitat; for instance, British Columbia operates a Coastal Waterbird Survey, whereas the Great Lakes Marsh Monitoring Program in run in Ontario.  Survey results are important to Canada and the international community, seeing as the majority of birds at risk are migratory.

While GIS is extremely useful in managing conservation wildlife, the concept is equally important in other disciplines and developments. While developing maps and obtain geographic information for conservation initiatives can be tedious work, many organizations, such as academic institutions and local and regional governments, provide free, easily accessible data.  High school students are encouraged to familiarize themselves with GIS tools and software.  I believe that to maximize learning outcomes, especially within the field of Geography, students should study basic concepts in GIS.  

Beyond conservation biology and other physical sciences, other areas of study and research, such as psychology and education, are reaping the benefits of GIS-based analysis.  As GIS continues its integration into an increasing number of research efforts, effective decision making and problem-solving will be done with increasing efficiency, understanding, and success.