ASU researchers study GIS, remote sensing in Gulf spill response

Article Published: Jul. 15, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
ASU researchers study GIS, remote sensing in Gulf spill response

Orange booms like this one on the coast of Grand Isle, La., are a common sight along the Gulf coast landscape. Two ASU faculty members visited the Louisiana Gulf coast recently to study the use of mapping technology in response to the oil spill. Photo courtesy of Jessica Pack

Mapping technology has long played a role in disaster recovery, but not until the recent Gulf oil spill have scientists been able to study the long-term use of GIS (geographic information systems) and remote sensing technologies to track a disaster as part of the response phase.

Appalachian State University faculty members Chris Badurek and John Pine visited the Louisiana Gulf coast in late June to study state, federal and private industries' use of these technologies in the response to the oil spill.

Badurek is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Planning in Appalachian's College of Arts and Sciences. Pine is director of Appalachian's Research Institute for Environment, Energy and Economics and a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning.

Their trip was funded by a grant from the Natural Hazards Center of the University of Colorado and the National Science Foundation. While in Louisiana, Badurek and Pine visited command centers in New Orleans and Houma, as well as government and academic organizations in Baton Rouge. In addition, they visited the coastal towns of Cocodrie and Grand Isle to examine impacts of the spill on local communities.

"Most disasters are usually so short in duration, usually a couple of days in the response phase, that you can seldom use this technology," Pine said. "This disaster has gone on for months, so the response phase is incredible in length. No one has ever seen anything like this. This is an unusual situation where we are able to apply mapping in a very different way."

The trip to Louisiana allowed Pine and Badurek to determine the nature and extent of the use of GIS and remote sensing in the response, both in the operations and in policy decisions such as where to deploy resources.

"Maps are good for that, as well as making policy decisions, such as how large of an area should be closed to fishing," Pine said.

Government agencies have access to daily data on the oil spill's movement through a mapping system developed by NOAA following the earthquake in Haiti, as well as maps developed and maintained by the state of Louisiana, and satellite imagery provided by foreign countries. Spotters in aircraft, including a Navy blimp, provide additional information.

The latest versions of geographic information technologies from software company ESRI were also being used, including web-based GIS and hand-held GPS data collection devices.
All this information is used to create maps located on the NOAA website that provides public access to the mapping and remote sensing data. Users can view images of the spill and projections on where the oil may go. Extensive background information is available to the user to understand the spill.

"The creation of an extensive GIS database and web GIS tool for accessing the data in a very short time period is impressive," Badurek said.

"The web today gives us unique capabilities of collecting and disseminating information," Pine said. "NOAA's mapping system and website is transforming how we share information about a disaster, both with the responders and the public. You can appreciate that citizens of the Gulf Coast want to know what's going on. What NOAA did is a huge leap in making that information available."

While progress is being made in monitoring the spill, as well as cleaning beaches and shoreline, the long-term impacts remain a concern of many who were interviewed by the professors.

Badurek said, "Research is certainly needed on the long-term ecological, social and economic impacts and the use of GIS data will provide a great baseline measure for assessing impacts two to five years from now."

The team plans to follow up their research with further studies of impacted communities in Louisiana over the coming months.

Badurek said the use of mapping technology in response to the spill would become part of his classroom discussion this fall.

"This is a real world example of complex data needs and demands and how GIS and satellite imagery can be integrated in a way that can be used for an explicit purpose," he said. "Often times remote sensing and GIS are used separately by different experts. In this case, the systems are being used very tightly in unison and rely upon each other to have good quality data."

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