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GIS and Data Tools Allow Us to Explore the World…From Our Computer Screens

Posted by Jenn Collins on February 9, 2021

It may not have the same feel as an Indiana Jones adventure or an expedition of old, but our work in both Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and database management for monitoring still allows us to explore the globe and experience far-off regions…through our computers. With our normal business travel suspended due to the pandemic, we’ve become the most modern of explorers, trotting the globe with the click of a mouse.

While not quite the same as true field work, our scientists are finding these “business trips” rewarding work. One day we’ll find ourselves engrossed in geographical or monitoring data, learning about soil types, local climate, or other environmental intricacies of a particular place. Another day we’ll be introduced to a small US town with an interesting name that triggers our curiosity. The experience can feel like a road trip when you see an interesting highway sign and have the urge to pull off and explore! 

GIS traveling recently took Dr. Gerco Hoogeweg, our Principal Soil and Water Quality Scientist, to the Sahel region of Western Africa. In a geospatial analysis project, Gerco examined the co-occurrence between a pre-emergent herbicide use and potentially vulnerable soils in this region. This trip took him on a mapping and GIS journey covering over 400 million hectares of land in the region!*

A trip closer to home led to the discovery of a small coastal town named Slaughter Beach in Delaware. The name alone piqued our interest and, after a bit of digging, we found that, without concrete proof, multiple stories have been built around the name. The town is a massive spawning site for horseshoe crabs in the Spring and this lore has it that when the waves hit the spawning crabs on the beach, the crabs were flipped over and killed by exposure to the elements. Another story—and hopefully the true version for the crabs’ sake—is that the surname of the first postmaster in the settlement was Slaughter. Either way – the “slaughter of the crabs” or the “Slaughter of the post office” – the town name alone urged us to explore.

No one on our team is complaining about our chance to thoroughly explore Europe. Though our work with GIS ecoregion and soil crosswalks we conduct similarity analyses on soil climates across continents to find similar soil conditions and ecological regions. By identifying similar conditions occurring in the US and Europe, we can help our clients minimize the need for timely and costly field or laboratory studies. While working with these similarity indexes, we can learn about the climates and soil characteristics across Europe and the US.

Even though many of us are still stuck working from home, we’re excited to see where our data travel will take us next.

*read more about this project from the PLOS ONE journal article.