Category: Physical Geography


EarthScope’s new home

EarthScope is an NSF program that, “that deploys thousands of seismic, GPS, and other geophysical instruments to study the structure and evolution of the North American continent and the processes the cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It involves collaboration between scientists, educators, policy makers, and the public to learn about and utilize exciting scientific discoveries as they are being made”. In other words, it is very, very, cool with lots of interactive data! The EarthScope data portal provides GPS,seismic, lidar, and other layers for students and researchers. As of July 1, EarthScope National Office is being hosted at Arizona State University School of Earth & Space Exploration, prior to that it had been hosted at Oregon State Department of Geosciences.

Your Spatial Backpack

When I was reading this month’s issue of Backpacker magazine, I started to fold down pages that contained geospatial apps and other features. After I had folded down most of the pages in this month’s magazine, I decided I would post some of my favorites. On their website, Backpacker has a section for app tools such as Backpacker Destinations which allows users to access trips and trails, save and upload trails, and share information via social media. There is a similar, less extensive type of app for Android called My Tracks which overlays routes onto Google maps. My favorite was the Backpacker Survival School which is like a course in being Bear Grylls. The iPad app teaches you what to do if you get lost or find yourself attacked by a bear. The magazine contained a full page ad for and their geocaching Bill of Rights.

Australian Flood Maps

Like many recent weather-related disasters, the media and on-line websites have started to increasingly use interactive maps to explain disasters such as Guardian UK and other news outlets coverage of the current Australian flooding. In most areas where flooding is a problem, flood maps are very important not only for planning, such as the work done by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, but also for insurance purposes. In fact, flood insurance has been a major topic of debate over the past few years in Australia, and GIS plays an important part in it as demonstrated in a 2009 ESRI Australia Insurance Flood Map and Risk Policy Pricing video.

The flooding reminded me of a 1988 science fiction disaster book I read called “The Drowning Towers” by distinguished Australian writer George Turner, which explored what would happen to society, if Australia flooded. It is considered one of the top science fiction novels of all time, but at the time it was written the idea of a flood on such a huge scale was considered to be unbelievable. It is interesting to me because disaster fiction always seems related to the geographical background of the person writing it, flooding has always been a very real problem in Australia. Corbis images has pictures of the Brisbane, Australia flood of 1893, Walking Melbourne has many historic photos includes ones of the 1863 flood, while the Australian Bureau of Meteorology provides a brief history of Queensland floods.

Finally, a national appeal has been started to raise funds, accept donations, and provide resources through the Queensland government.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory

In 2008, Sue posted about the U.S. Department of Energy‘s National Renewable Energy Laboratory Atlas that was in development. I ran across the completed NREL FTP site with geospatial toolkits and GIS data by the NREL GIS team. They analyze wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and other energy resources and provide corresponding GIS data. This includes a beta version of their MapSearch of maps created by the team. I had the honor of attending (sitting in the audience) a surprisingly tense and exciting National Middle School Science Bowl many years ago, so it was interesting to find out that NREL manages the National Middle School Science Bowl for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.

Pluto, revisited

The news that NASA discovered a new type of microorganism has overshadowed new findings on Pluto. The Christian Science Monitor presents both sides of the debate, “Should Pluto be Restored as a Planet?” According to Mike Wall from, Pluto was found to be slightly larger than Eris, the entity that supplanted it, re-opening the debate if it should be restored as a full-fledged planet. Discovery News details the method used to compare the size of Eris and Pluto. In several articles Mike Brown, who discovered Eris and wrote the appropriately titled book, “How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming” states that the most important part of the discovery isn’t about size but the fact that Eris is much denser than Pluto and thus a totally different composition and origin. In his posts on Mike Brown’s Planets he describes the Skymapper project to survey the whole southern skies by Australian National University.

Remote Sensing and Freshwater

This post was written as a guest post for the MyWonderfulWorld blog for Geography Awareness Week. Be sure to head over and check out more of the MWW blog-a-thon for GAW.

Continuing Geography Awareness Week, we would like to talk about a topic that brings together geospatial technologies (it is GIS Day after all) with this year’s Geography Awareness Week theme of Freshwater. Water quality assessment is a crucial issue in many parts of the world due to causes such as pollution in manufacturing countries, scarcity in arid regions, and issues of access in urban areas. While Earth Observation Day is still a few months away (April 8, 2011), we wanted to take a look at geographic information gathered from remote sensing technologies to understand how this imagery can be used in studying water quality and other water-related issues.

There are a number of remote sensing studies that have taken advantage of spectral responses of specific phenomena to look at how light of different wavelengths can capture various water quality issues including sediments suspended in water, algae blooms, aquatic plants, and water temperature. Additional studies of these spectral responses have also been used to derive information on salinity (pdf) , water clarity, and other water topics. The United States and the European Union, for instance, both have water quality mandates that have been supported through the use of remote sensing imagery, and they are not alone in the use of such imagery to address this need.

In addition to studies that look at water quality, remotely sensed data has also been used to support a wide range of studies that deal with other water issues, such as identifying spatial changes in water bodies, by providing researchers with detailed views of an area. For example, remotely sensed data has been crucial in monitoring the contraction of the Aral Sea in central Asia, as well as other important bodies of water throughout the world. Other examples include mapping oil spills such as the spill this past summer in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill or change detection to track snow pack or glacial melt.

While information derived from aerial or satellite images can support the large area assessment of surface water sources, it is often supported through the use of other location information/technologies. In-situ sensors are used by agencies such as the USGS. A network of fixed location sensors is maintained that can be used to ground truth certain aspects of water quality. In the case of studies that look at locations other than those with static location sensors, GPS receivers are used to record locations, such as in the case of randomly sampled ground truth test sites.

Of course, the information that is captured and classified using remote sensing can be fused with other types geographic information to provide users and consumers with a contextual, and often richer, understanding of water quality issues. An article from the Summer 2009 issue of Imaging Notes, for example, talks about some of the GIS tools that are used in water quality modeling. The wealth of tools that can be brought to bear to assess water quality issues are growing and now include a number of geospatial technologies. So remember, even though we only celebrate Geography Awareness Week and GIS Day once a year, there are many amazing resources and research projects out there that utilize remotely-sensed information to help us understand and try to solve many of today’s pressing environmental issues, including water quality and availability.

Have you met Earth Science Week?

For those who are not aware Earth Science Week is just around the corner, October 10-16. A good portion of Geography looks at the physical environment and its components…aka is Earth Science. Basically it gives us another week to push Geography awareness. But instead of the focus on human-environment interaction that we trend towards in November, Earth Science Week gives us a chance to talk about some of the physical geography basics. While we have talked about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) as being connected to Geography broadly, this is where some of the most notable connections exist. Earth Science Week gives us a chance to highlight weather, climate, geomorphology, biogeography and all of the goodness in between. Not only does it cover a breadth of topics, but also numerous methods and techniques. Whether you want to model the environment using computers, do some hands on lab work, or pull your hiking boots out of the closet and head to the field, don’t forget to take advantage of Earth Science Week to highlight the fact that Geography is all about the Earth, science and all.

NASA Earth Science Hurricane Katrina retrospective

To mark the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall in the Gulf Coast, NASA Earth Science has released this short video retrospective of some of the imagery and analyses that were used to track and visualize Hurricane Katrina

Oostvaardersplassen – The Pleistocene is just a train ride away

Previously we’ve posted about Pleistocene Park, and a similar project in Scotland that are aimed at recreating the fauna and flora of the Pleistocene Era by setting aside protected areas that are kept ‘wild’. Oostvaardersplassen, a park in the Netherlands, has created a similar preserve, using Konik horses and Heck cattle to give a feel for similar, but extinct, Pleistocene herbivores like the tarpan and European bison and elk. The landscape is mostly open grasslands, with small copses of trees. Currently, the Oostvaardersplassen is an isolated nature preserve, but you can take a train ride that passes through the park, and there are plans to open a natural corridor to a forest area in Zeewolde.

There is some controversy over efforts like Oostvaardersplassen, including issues of whether to truly leave these areas to nature, even when harsh winters might kill significant portions of the wildlife in such parks or when animals become sick and injured. What do you think? Do preserves like Oostvaardersplassen and Pleistocene Park really give a us a chance to glimpse a vanished landscape?

Here’s a short video of Oostervaardersplassen that gives you a good idea of what the landscape and wild horse herds are like:

Via io9 and Ark in Space

First US Offshore Windfarm

Anyone who talks to me about energy will quickly learn I’m a HUGE fan of offshore wind energy.  So this news item in the New York Times caught my eye pretty quick – regulators have approved the US’s first offshore windfarm.  As the opponents point out in the article, this is just one of several hurdles that have to be overcome before it becomes reality, but it’s a pretty big one.  Several other countries have experimented with this stuff with pretty good successes, so I have a lot of high hopes for US versions.

On a side note, has anyone ever wondered why windmills have three arms?  Turns out there’s a good engineering reason behind it all.  Slate has a good article talking about the engineering benefits of various designs.  The basic punchline is that three blades have the optimal energy output, environmental impact, and manufacturing costs we seek in a good windmill.  If manufacturing costs decrease with better processes, two blade systems might make more sense.

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