GEOG 487
Environmental Challenges in Spatial Data Science

Application Scenarios


Application Scenarios

The deliverable for this week is a discussion about the role of geospatial technology and spatial data in environmental management. To facilitate that discussion, I present three well-suited applications for geospatial technology utilization. Take a look at the resources provided here, and feel free to extend your search beyond these links to get an idea of what these use cases entail and how geospatial technology and spatial data fit into the process. I've chosen these three applications to try to represent different types of environmental work: a large construction project, municipal waste management, and wildfire and resource management. They are each what we would consider "environmental challenges." Still, each has a different purpose and context that range from broad-scale government regulation to local-scale engineering to applied science. Think about any similarities or differences among these examples as you explore them.

1. Environmental Impact Statements

In 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Environmental Protection Agency were created to formalize attention on the environmental impacts of other decisions and projects. Browse their websites and any other resources you discover to research what NEPA and the EPA are all about. Specifically, look at what their missions are.

A key component of NEPA is the requirement for certain projects to develop an Environmental Impact statement (EIS) that details the potential consequences of the project's implementation on the physical environment. EISs, therefore, are essentially thorough analyses of large construction projects and how they might interact with all sorts of physical and biological systems. These statements have tremendous potential for geospatial technology application due to the spatially-explicit nature of the large projects that require an EIS. The official specification for Environmental Impact Statements can be found in the Federal Code of Regulations. Check out sections 1502.1, 1502.15, and 1502.16, which provide some insights into why EISs are required and what they should include.

To view a completed EIS, all of which are public records, you can search for one on the EPA website. To help you see a final EIS, I've downloaded one for a couple of wind farm projects:

Other related documents that you might find interesting are: the GPWF Record of Decision, which details how or if the project will proceed, and a video that describes the completed Grand Praire Wind Farm project and a video that describes

2. Municipal Waste Management

The University Area Joint Authority (UAJA) manages the wastewater treatment for the municipalities of State College and the surrounding region. It is a traditional municipal sewage treatment facility that is responsible for the transport of sewage into the facility and the disposal of residual waste and water. Some of the facility's output enters local waterways directly, and other outputs are reused in agricultural settings, an initiative they call "beneficial reuse alternatives." Additionally, the UAJA has addressed other environmental impacts, such as an issue with odors in the nearby neighborhoods.

These two activities, beneficial reuse and odor control, provide opportunities for geospatial analysis. UAJA produced a report describing their plans for alternative uses of treated wastewater. You will see sections about different options, including urban reuse, agricultural irrigation, and direct injection, and the potential impacts of these plans on drinking water quality and water temperature. UAJA also shared findings from an odor study performed in response to complaints from residents living near the treatment facility. The study sampled odor levels in various locations surrounding the facility and identified possible sources of the nuisance smells. Efforts to control the odors require spatial data showing where issues currently occur, where they originate, and how they are transported via wind, etc. Much of the sample data was collected using "human sensory testing" via an observation form. The form is interesting both for the fun of seeing how odors are classified and, more importantly, how the location of each observation was recorded, which has implications for how the spatial data must be processed for use in a GIS. This is a form that citizens can submit to record an odor observation.

3. Fire Detection and Management

Wildfires stand as one of the most catastrophic natural disasters, impacting millions of acres burned and countless ecosystems globally each year. Their consequences extend to endangering human well-being, biodiversity, climate stability, and socio-economic progress. In order to avert, control, and alleviate the ramifications of these fast-moving fires, dependable and prompt data regarding fire frequency, behavior, and repercussions are imperative for researchers and decision-makers. In this context, geospatial technology and spatial data emerge as potent instruments capable of furnishing vital insights. 

NASA's Fire Information for Resource Management System, or FIRMS, is a tool that provides data about active fires and thermal anomalies or hot spots. As outlined on the website, the focus and objectives of FIRMS include "providing quality resources for fire data on demand, working with end users to enhance critical applications, assisting global organizations in fire analysis efforts, delivering effective data presentation and management." The University of Maryland originally developed the system using funding from NASA's Applied Sciences Program and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO). FIRMS migrated to NASA's LANCE (Land, Atmosphere Near real-time Capability for EOS) in 2012.

Real-time fire detections in the U.S. and Canada are viewable online at FIRMS US/Canada Fire Map, and global fire detections are viewable online at FIRMS Global within 3 hours of satellite observation. The active fire data is also downloadable in various formats, including shapefiles and KML files. FIRMS uses satellite observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instruments to detect, verify, and track active fires and thermal anomalies or hot spots. The information is considered to be delivered in near real-time (NRT) to decision-makers through alerts, analysis-ready data, online maps, and web services.

For additional information, check out the AGO StoryMap: FIRMS: Fire Information for Resource Management System Managing Wildfires with Satellite Data. Also, data about air quality during wildfires can be found at AirNow. The Fire and Smoke Map reports information about wildfire smoke and air quality information using the official U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI) for more than 500 cities across the U.S. and Canada. Try viewing the full extent of North America as well as zooming in on your city or region.