Charting a New Course for the Health of Puget Sound

October 31, 2012

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Scientists have long fretted over the health of Hood Canal, a Puget Sound basin whose oxygen-starved waters have become inhospitable to marine life.

The ailing waterway, located between the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas, has seen a number of fish die-offs in the past decade, each episode resulting in sea life washing up on the shoreline or gulping for oxygen at the surface.

A natural ebb and flow in oxygen levels can explain some of the changes measured in the water. But growing human activity along the canal — logging and septic tank leakage are two outgrowths — have caused an uptick in the nitrogen level, which fuels algae growth. Oxygen is then expended when the algae die. The consequences have had a dire impact on the canal’s biodiversity.

For researchers, communicating the environmental challenges facing Puget Sound to a broad audience can be cumbersome. Reports and studies aren’t easily digested or understood by a broad audience, making it that much more difficult to inspire serious change.  Graphically representing an environmental problem on a map, however, can make the impacts much more apparent.

Proving that point is a recent project conducted by a group of students in the University of Washington Professional Master’s Program in Geographic Information Systems (PMP-GIS) for Sustainability Management.

The students were tasked with visually depicting the health of Puget Sound on a map and indicating water quality in different regions by assigning each a color — dark green, light green, orange and red.

Colors correspond to varying scores derived from the Sediment Quality Triad Index, a complicated calculation based on a series of environmental variables: sediment chemistry, toxicity and the health of bottom-dwelling marine life.

The Central Sound area off the shores of Seattle is filled in with green, indicating a score between 89.5 and 96.5 — good water health. That area also happens to have a high concentration of monitoring sites.

But in the case of Hood Canal, one of the most troubled stretches of Puget Sound, bright red spans the length of the fjord. Yet there are only three monitoring sites along the Canal, and none are near the southern end.

That came as somewhat of a surprise to Rick Hollatz, who co-authored the map with classmates Nicolas Eckhardt and Sarah Valenta. Hollatz couldn’t help but wonder whether more cleanup and monitoring resources should be shifted to the Hood Canal.

"The areas that are currently very unhealthy don’t have a lot of investment, according to the map,” said Hollatz. “But you have the Seattle area that is actually healthy but obviously has a large amount of money going into the cleanup effort there. So is it well-balanced? Maybe, maybe not.”

It’s just one example of patterns and observations that would otherwise go unnoticed, and speaks to the benefit of using maps to distill complicated environmental situations to their core elements, according to Robert Aguirre, a graduate program advisor and instructor with the UW PMP-GIS.

“Our brains as information processors can detect spatial patterns,” he said. “There’s no substitute for that. You really have to rely on human cognitive ability. Spatial thinking is extremely important; it’s a skill that everyone has in their human computer, and this feeds that.”

All three cartography students involved in the Puget Sound water quality project completed the course in 2011 with the intent to compile their findings into an interactive map. Users can compare water quality from one year to the next, and see how current water-health indicators measure up to future targets.

Students Korey Kramer and Christopher Clinton were tasked with developing a population density map inside and outside of urban growth areas near the Puget Sound over time.

The expectation was that students would extract their data from disparate land development documents and reports, just as they would in a real GIS workplace setting.

“It wasn’t theoretical … that really highlighted the importance of the course for me,” Kramer said.

The combined efforts of students culminated in a report, which can be accessed on the UW Libraries ResearchWorks Archive.

The PMP-GIS, created in 2010 and directed by Tim Nyerges in the Department of Geography at the University of Washington, was the first GIS professional master’s program to be developed with a sustainability management concentration.The program’s goal is the well-being of current generations and the influence of their activities on future generations.

More information about the UW PMP-GIS can be found on the program website. You can also send questions and inquiries to, or call either 206-685-3226 or 888-469-6499.


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