SEATTLE- The "smart maps" made possible by geographic information systems, or GIS technology, are showing people the Oregon coast in a way they've never seen it before, scientists said today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The development of sophisticated technologies for data collection and subsequent mapping, particularly in the oceans, has allowed for the creation of interactive data portals such as the Oregon Coastal Atlas.
"People can now make their own maps of the Oregon coast with access to all of the data that is mainly under the purview of our state ocean coastal management program," said Dawn Wright, a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University. "People who are interested in natural hazards and live on the coast can go to the site and map out existing hazards where they live."
The Oregon Coastal Atlas can be accessed online at http://www.coastalatlas.net.
GIS is called a smart map because there is a database attached to the map, Wright said. In other words, computer algorithms can be used to analyze the data that you already have, and to generate new maps and new data.
GIS was originally developed for practical terrestrial applications, such as mapping out sewer routes and other public utilities, said Wright. She is working on improving GIS so that it can be more readily used for ocean applications.
It is much more difficult to create a map of something that is fluid and changing, such as the oceans, than to map static features, such as the location of buildings or land use patterns, said Wright.
Mapping of the oceans means dealing with multiple data sets, one of the strengths of the GIS technology.
"If you are trying to figure out where fish species hang out, you need to know the water quality, the temperature, the weather patterns moving through the area, human effects, marine pollution, commercial fishing and shipping tracks," said Wright. "You then need to combine all of these data sets to fully understand what's going on, and GIS allows us to do just that."
One of the drawbacks of GIS is that it only provides a static map.
"Things are constantly moving and dynamic in the ocean, and all we're getting is a snapshot in time," said Wright. "You could string all of those snapshots together and try to make a movie out of it, but it's still not the same thing as being in the ocean."
One of Wright's recent projects involves mapping the ocean floor around American Samoa, during which she discovered nine new underwater volcanoes on the flanks of the main island of Tutuila. The report claiming that "80 percent of the Earth's surface" had been mapped by the NASA Shuttle Ray Topography Mission in 2000 was hard for Wright to swallow.
"People talk about the idea of exploration and discovery, and it's still a surprise whenever we find new features on the ocean floor, because we're still discovering things about this planet, let alone Mars," said Wright.
What most people don't realize, Wright said, is that 71 percent of the Earth's total surface is submerged beneath our oceans, and only 5 percent of the ocean floor is mapped at a high level of detail. We have far more detailed maps of other planets than we do for the majority of our own planet, the ocean floor.
"A lot of people still think that the ocean floor is fairly featureless and flat, when in reality we have these tremendous mountain ranges and trenches," Wright said. "You could fit Mount Everest in the Tonga Trench and it would disappear." Another misconception most people have about the oceans?
"Conservation-wise, people still look at the oceans as this vast sink," said Wright. "You can just throw stuff out there, pollute it, and it will just disappear, out of sight, out of mind. But we have found that is definitely not the case. I've seen trash on the deep ocean floor when I've dived in submersibles."
Wright's presentation was made at the annual meeting of the AAAS, one of the largest general science conferences in America.