What do scientists do when they return from diving coral reefs, plotting rainforests or counting birds in the field? In many cases, they make maps to illustrate what they’ve found.
Click on map to enlarge
This map shows how Samoa’s protected areas overlap with its key biodiversity areas. Maps help researchers make informed decisions by drawing connections between different ecological and development trends.
As an organization grounded in science, Conservation International (CI) is on the forefront of cutting-edge mapping technology. In fact, maps are among the most important tools used to influence key decision-makers worldwide.
Marine scientist Elizabeth Selig has been using geographic information system (GIS) programs for 10 years. “We’re entering an era where we’re trying to determine how we can plan for conserving our oceans and landscapes for both conservation and human well-being. Maps help us figure out what kinds of activities should happen in which places.”
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Mapping Species and Economies
GIS systems use data from a variety of sources, including historical maps, field surveys and satellite images. By compiling these resources, researchers can assemble a holistic view of multiple factors in the region – from biological resources to land-use and other activities.
For example, a scientist mapping deforestation rates would first compile past and present deforestation data. Then, by accounting for other related factors, such as population, socioeconomic status and the forest’s proximity to roads, researchers can predict what future deforestation rates will be depending on these factors. Ecuador’s Socio Bosque program – which is designed to combat both deforestation and poverty – used GIS and other mapping techniques to determine where to prioritize their work.
VIDEO: Socio Bosque (Forest Partners)
Over the years, CI scientists have been instrumental in helping to identify and map the world’s biodiversity hotspots – regions containing the most unique, species-rich and threatened ecosystems on Earth. But these maps aren’t just important for scientists; tools like GIS are also in demand to improve law enforcement effectiveness and natural disaster management.
Building on a foundation of biodiversity research, CI is expanding its use of mapping technology into the relatively new field of measuring ecosystem services – the benefits that nature provides, from water purification to food provision to storm buffering . Marc Steininger, scientific director of CI’s Science + Knowledge division, explains the increasing integration of conservation and development goals. “GIS is important for developing green economies; spatial analysis lets us examine the tradeoffs of different types of investments and come to responsible decisions.”
“We’re entering an era where we’re trying to determine how we can plan for conserving our oceans and landscapes for both conservation and human well-being. Maps help us figure out what kinds of activities should happen in which places.”
– Elizabeth Selig, CI marine scientist
GIS: From Treetops to the Ocean Floor
Working both in the GIS lab at CI’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, and in field offices around the world, CI researchers are using mapping tools to identify priority sites for conservation, making development recommendations that would minimize environmental damage and maximize economic benefits.
- CI and Clark Labs are working to establish a new modeling system for “REDD+ baselines” – estimating the future rate and distribution of deforestation and land-use change if REDD+ (Reducing Deforestation and Forest Degradation “plus” conservation) activities are not implemented.
- In the marine realm, GIS is helping researchers understand ecosystem flows – the interconnectivity of coastal and marine habitats. Scientists are also using the tool to explore uncharted ocean territories, mapping parts of the seafloor that were inaccessible until recently.
- Satellite images form the basis of a fire alert system established by CI and partners in Madagascar, Indonesia and the Andes. A new version, expected to launch later this year, will cover many of the world’s tropical countries and will also alert subscribers to deforestation taking place in critical ecosystems.
CI has worked with partner institutions to conduct over 40 GIS training workshops around the world. Through this training, local people have learned to map their communities and resources, giving them the knowledge necessary to influence governmental development decisions that affect their lives.
Remote-sensing specialist Andriambolantsoa Rasolohery works on mapping forest cover change in Madagascar’s Fandriana-Vondrozo corridor. His 2008 study has already impacted local stakeholders. “Our map can be found on the wall of most governmental and nonprofit offices in the area.” In acknowledgement of his work, Rasolohery recently received a scholarship from the Society for Conservation GIS; the award will fund a two-week advanced training course in California.
Improved accessibility is quickly changing the scope of GIS around the world. A few years ago, one satellite image might cost thousands of dollars; today, these photos are free and accessible to the public. In addition, advances in communication technology have made it easier for GIS users to collaborate with other researchers all over the world without leaving home. These factors have all combined to exponentially increase the amount of data that is available worldwide, an expansion of knowledge which surely brings us ever closer towards a truly responsible development strategy.
READ MORE: Science in Action: Putting Out Fires
As part of its commitment to conservation, the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) – a leading GIS software provider – recently signed an agreement with CI which will give our staff worldwide greater access to their GIS software. CI has been working with ESRI for almost 20 years; the partnership has contributed to the production of countless products which have had an enormously successful impact, not only on CI and its work, but on the conservation community as a whole.