Diving into Ocean and Coastal GIS: Progress and Challenges
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
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.
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.
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:
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,