Diving into Ocean and Coastal GIS: Progress and Challenges

By Dawn Wright

Our Earth has long been referred to as "the water planet" as it is well-known that 71% of its surface is covered with water. Three hundred million years of earth history is recorded on the ocean floor, where underwater volcanoes account for 70% of global volcanism, producing enough new material each year to pave the entire U.S. interstate highway system to a height of six feet (Macdonald and Fox, 1990)! Global climate change has received much attention, and the oceans play a critical role in this phenomenon. Air-sea interactions that drive El Niño and La Niña, as well as processes beneath the surface such as thermohaline circulation, are important in this process. We are now more aware than ever of the destructive potential of tsunamis, all of which are generated on the ocean floor either via earthquakes or massive submarine landslides.

Discussions and debates continue on the dangers of global sea level rise, on the crises associated with coral reefs (the "rainforests of the oceans") and depleting fish stocks, and even on the insecurity of our ports and harbors should terrorists strike. According to a World Resources Institute study (2001), 20% of all humanity lives less than 16 miles away from a coastal zone and 39%, or 2.2 billion people, live within 60 miles of the coast. Government agencies, businesses, academic institutions and even non-profit organizations all have a tremendous stake in the development and management of geospatial data resources in oceans and coasts.

Despite the great needs, tremendous gaps still remain in our data collection and hence our understanding of ocean and coastal regions. For example, we have better maps of the moon, Venus and even Mars than we have of the entire surface of the planet Earth, including the 70% covered by the oceans. We have sent more people to the moon than to the deepest spot in the ocean (Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench). Virtually nothing is known of shelf-edge regions of coral reefs habitats throughout the world (150-360 feet deep; Koenig et al., 2000), and a global inventory of benthic species throughout all of the world's oceans is far from complete (e.g., Census of Marine Life).

The development in the last 10-20 years of sophisticated technologies for ocean data collection and management, including GIS, holds tremendous potential for mapping and interpreting the ocean environment in unprecedented detail. Many books describe how marine GISs have been developed to handle and exploit data streams from oceanographic expeditions and observatories, experiments, numerical models and other sources, yielding insights into oceanographic, ecological and socioeconomic conditions of the ocean and coastal environment. There are now several scientific ocean observatories, such as the Ocean Research Interactive Observatory Networks in the U.S. and SeaDataNet in Europe, and marine protected areas throughout the world where consistent mapping, experimentation and analysis are taking place.

The awareness and use of GIS for ocean studies has increased greatly in the last 10 years, particularly with its adoption by agencies and institutes such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuary Program and National Ocean Service, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Nature Conservancy. This speaks to the utility of GIS not only for basic science and exploration, but also for ocean protection, preservation and management. Exponential improvements in the speed and capacities of computer hardware and software, an accompanying drop in prices, and the increased availability of skilled practitioners in GIS are making implementation possible where costs have been, until very recently, prohibitive.

Data, too, are easier to obtain via the Internet and numerous public sources of spatial information, such as the National Geophysical Data Center, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration-funded Distributed Oceanographic Data System (DODS), the EarthExplorer of the USGS, and geodata.gov. Initiatives such as the Marine Metadata Interoperabilty project are building common approaches to vocabularies and ontologies that will facilitate database searches. Portals such as the Oregon Coastal Atlas, the Marine Irish Digital Atlas, the Ocean Biogeographic Information System - Spatial Ecological Analysis of Megavertebrate Populations, and Davey Jones Locker provide clearinghouses of common decision-support tools, as well as the data, pre-made maps and ancillary information.

And finally, although the realization of true three-dimensionality remains a challenge (particularly in the marine/coastal realm where there are dissimilarities between the horizontal and vertical dimensions), mapping of oceans continues to be an area of research that pushes the boundaries of geographic information science, compelling significant attention from funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation and NOAA.

The aforementioned prjects highlight the increasingly crucial role of GIS in data system advances and solutions for ocean and coastal mapping, monitoring and conservation. Impediments to its use are being removed through basic research from several theoretical, technical and application-oriented approaches. Scientists, managers and conservation organizations - often in collaboration with each other - are making advances in the way that these data from the "final frontier" of our planet are being collected, documented, analyzed and shared.

References Cited


Breman, J. (ed.), Marine Geography: GIS for the Oceans and Seas, Redlands, CA: ESRI Press, 2002.

Green, D. and S. King (eds.), Coastal and Marine Geo-Information Systems: Applying the Technology to the Environment, Guildford, UK: Springer, 2003.

Koenig, C., F. Coleman, C. Grimes, G. Fitzhugh, K. Scanlon, C. Gledhill, and M. Grace. Protection of fish spawning habitat for the conservation of warm temperate reef fish fisheries of shelf-edge reefs of Florida. Bulletin of Marine Science, 66(3): 593-616, 2000.

Macdonald, K.C., and P.J. Fox, The mid-ocean ridge, Scientific American, 262, 72-79, 1990.

Valavanis, V.D., Geographic Information Systems in Oceanography and Fisheries, London: Taylor & Francis, 2002.

World Resources Institute, World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life, 400 pp., World Resources Institute, Washington, D. C., 2000.

Wright, D.J., and D.J. Bartlett (eds.), Marine and Coastal Geographical Information Systems, London: Taylor & Francis, 2000.

Published Thursday, April 5th, 2007

Written by Dawn Wright



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