For your consideration - Ka Leo O Hawaii: Opinion

For your consideration

How Google Maps can save the environment

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Posted: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 5:00 am

Like Chris Parnell in Saturday Night Live’s viral “Lazy Sunday” video, it’s likely that you’ve “hit up Yahoo! Maps to find the dopest route” to your destination. As smartphones boasting GPS functionality permeate our daily lives, digital mapping tools have become more indispensable.

Even so, many people are unaware of the key role that digital mapping has played in applications outside of our simple day-to-day navigation queries. Scientists have taken advantage of powerful geographic information systems – think Google Maps on steroids – to better understand our changing natural environment.

Science is spatial, and the majority of data we collect and analyze in the natural sciences has a “where” component. Viewing data from a spatial perspective unlocks secrets that can enhance our comprehension and understanding of processes at work.


Here are a few examples of how GIS is being utilized at UH Mānoa to tackle some of our most pressing environmental problems:

Mark Chynowyth, who recently graduated with a master’s degree in natural resources and environmental management, used GIS to quantify the movement patterns and habitat selection of nonnative feral goats across a Hawaiian dry forest landscape. Feral goats are a threat to native plant and animal species and act as a critical barrier to ecological restoration of many island ecosystems.

Using GIS software, Chynowyth was able to map habitat features and monitor feral goat movement with GPS collars. Understanding feral goat movements and their interactions with the landscape can help prioritize our conservation efforts in some of Hawai‘i’s most threatened ecosystems.

Lisa Ellsworth, a Ph.D. candidate in fire ecology, has used GIS to quantify the rates of land cover conversion since 1950 following repeated wildfire events in and around two heavily managed areas at Schofield Barracks and Makua Military Reservation on O‘ahu. Ellsworth’s results demonstrate that conversion from forest to nonnative grassland significantly impacts current and future fire risk.

I also used GIS when calculating metrics, which quantified the patterns of growth of mangroves on the island of O‘ahu. Mangroves are a nonnative species in Hawai‘i that have spread rapidly and impacted local waterways, archaeological sites, native plants and birds. I interpreted these spatial metrics in a way that helps forecast the future trajectory of mangrove invasion and the impact of this growth on native water birds.


Geospatial technology continues to mature and evolve. Data is collected more frequently and at a higher level of detail than ever imagined. For example, Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) systems use airborne laser sensors to create a high-resolution profile of ground features. These technologies can be used to create 3D models, estimate the ability of plants to help offset our carbon emissions or model the flow of water across the Earth’s surface.

Familiarity with GIS is becoming a marketable skill set in the natural sciences. Introductory classes offered at UH Mānoa include: NREM 477 (GIS for Resource Managers), ANTH 477 (Introduction to GIS for Anthropologists), GG 461 (Geospatial Information) and PLAN 473 (GIS for Community Planning).

The next time you’re looking up your house on Google Earth or mapping the fastest route to the beach, step back and think about the powerful geospatial tools at your fingertips and how you might use them to better understand the world around you.

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