Geography and GIS: A Spatial Relationship
For over 2500 years, people have been fascinated by geography, the study of our planet, its places, its processes, and its people. I argue that geography can be thought of as a three-legged stool. The first leg is a rich body of content, including an understanding of river systems, biomes, climate, ocean currents, regional characteristics, natural hazards, energy, migration, and demographics, just to name a few. These are not just facts about those topics, but an in-depth examination about how they work and how they change over space and time. The second leg is composed of the skills that are inherent to geography, such as critical thinking skills, analytical skills, and problem-solving skills. Other skills include working with maps, satellite images, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning Systems (GPS), databases, scales, processes, spatial and temporal relationships, representing data, and other key skills necessary for the 21st Century. The third leg is the geographic, or spatial, perspective. This perspective is needed now more than ever, as our world becomes more populated, more complex, and more interconnected. The geographically-informed person sees the world from the viewpoint that phenomena interact and change over space, at local, regional, and global scales, and the resulting spatial relationships are important in nearly every aspect of our physical and cultural environment.
What impact does deteriorating air quality from expanding urban areas in southern California have on Joshua Trees in the Mojave Desert? Photo credit: Joseph Kerski.
Today, geography is more relevant than ever, as issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, sustainable agriculture, water quality and quantity, political instability, food, transportation, energy, and natural hazards grow in importance at the global scale but also increasingly affect our everyday lives. To effectively grapple with these complex issues, decision-makers need to see and understand geographic patterns and trends at anything from a global scale down to the level of a local community. To investigate such trends, geographers, and increasingly those outside of geography, rely on GIS (Gewin 2004). Unlike traditional maps, GIS goes beyond static, two-dimensional objects: instead, individual maps can be manipulated and combined with other maps, charts, databases, and multimedia, some in 3-D space.
The “G” in GIS represents geography – the map. The map could be a 2-D or 3-D topographic map, a map of soil pH, ecosystems, or watersheds, or a satellite image. The “I” represents the information behind the map, stored in a database. For rivers, the information could indicate perennial or intermittent, streamflow rate, or how conductivity or salinity varies with time or along its course. The ‘S” – the system – connects the map and the database. By selecting components on the map, the GIS analyst simultaneously selects the associated attributes in the database (and vice versa), allowing them to changed, visualized, or classified. With the help of hundreds of tools in a GIS, spatial data can be manipulated and combined in many different ways. For example, the proximity tool could find all of the earthquakes that have occurred within 100 km of Charleroi, and the overlay tool could narrow down these earthquakes to those that have occurred under alluvium as the surficial deposit and that are on land containing high density residential development.
Using GIS in Education
Why should GIS professionals who read the GIS User care about geography and GIS education? To build the workforce that GIS organizations are seeking when they hire people, education is an obviously critical component. In primary, secondary, university, and informal education, GIS can be used to help students think critically, use real data, and solve problems. It appeals to today’s visual and technology-based learners. GIS is as fundamental a tool for teaching and learning geography as the periodic table of the elements is to a chemistry instructor or a microscope to a biology instructor. However, GIS can and must be used beyond geography to biology, chemistry, earth science, environmental science, history, mathematics, and in other subjects. Why? If the GIS community believes that GIS should be a core tool used in all disciplines, we must insist that GIS be embedded in these disciplines, beginning as early in the educational system as possible. In addition, GIS can be effectively used in combination with outdoor education (Louv 2005) and provides excellent career pathways for students. A wide variety of topics can be explored, such as the relationships between people, climate, land use, vegetation, river systems, aquifers, landforms, soils, and natural hazards. GIS inquiry begins with asking a geographic question. For example, how will climate change affect global food production? What is the relationship between birth rate and life expectancy? How does acid mine drainage in a mountain range affect water quality downstream? How does the changing demography associated with smaller household size affect urban sprawl? What is the best location for new wind energy farms? How will a proposed retail center affect community traffic patterns and land use?
In the classroom, GIS can be used in numerous ways (Kerski 2008). Using GIS tools such as ArcGIS (http://www.esri.com/arcgis) or ArcGIS Online (http://www.arcgis.com) and searching on “hurricane,” students can analyse the route, severity, and frequency of hurricanes and cyclones in the western Atlantic Ocean for the past 150 years. Are hurricanes becoming more or less frequent today than they were during the 19th or 20th Centuries? Students can gather data on tree location, height, and species on their school campus using GPS receivers or even smartphones, build a spreadsheet, and then map those trees on top of a satellite image base map to analyze the pattern. Students can analyze the effects of the October 2010 toxic flood in Hungary on downstream communities and rivers (http://edcommunity.esri.com/arclessons/lesson.cfm?id=556). Students can access the “This Dynamic Planet” map (http://mineralsciences.si.edu/tdpmap/) to study the relationship of earthquakes and volcanoes to plate boundaries and the rate of plate movement.
Students can use Worldmapper (http://www.worldmapper.org) to analyse over 750 variables such as high-tech exports, forest loss, and mineral extraction as cartograms and spreadsheets. Through the use of ArcGIS, students can analyse the flood potential for rivers in their community and current wildfires around the world using real data and base maps in two or three dimensions. They can determine the mean center of population for an area, analyze how forests have changed in Brazil by analyzing satellite images from the 1970s to today, or determine how many cities in the USA are within 25 km of the coast. Many other examples of using GIS in education exist, but let us select two and explore them in greater detail.
Source: GIS User