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Blank Spaces

Mark Alonzo

If a discovery unshared is a discovery lost, then good science must include good communication. In the earth sciences, that means you better have really good geospatial data including maps, imagery, and more. The Big Picture maps for that kind of work are often called base maps, and you don’t get them without using remote sensing, GIS, and a lot of work. One of my favorites, the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica (LIMA), just had an interesting role in discovery. The United States Geological Survey (with partners) created LIMA for the last International Polar Year, 2007-2009.

A GIS specialist at British Antarctic Survey looking at LIMA noticed some ice along the Antarctic coast that wasn’t the usual some-sort-of-white. It was brown and it was actually a previously unknown emperor penguin colony. Penguins from space! Okay, more precisely, as penguins are not 30 meters wide, what was seen in the image was a large field of penguin poop. Visible from satellite. Notwithstanding poor avian hygiene, some bold explorers made the trek out to the newly found colony to study them.

There’s a lot to be learned by studying Emperor Penguin colonies, but they’re not easy to get to. First of all, Antarctica is not Cleveland. It’ll take some effort and a pallet of money for starters. Secondly, emperor penguins are only in colonies on the ice while nesting. In the winter. One of my favorite books, The Worst Journey In The World, details the experiences of Apsley George Bennet Cherry-Garrard, a member of the disastrous final Scott expedition to the South Pole in 1910. He and a partner went on a winter camping trip to get an Emperor egg or two (successful) and came away with the pithy summary, “When one has experienced 110 degrees of frost, then one may say one has been cold”. You don’t want to wander off in minus 73 degree Fahrenheit conditions without being certain of where you’re going. Thanks to LIMA, our modern explorers fared much better than Cherry-Garrard. Now we know much more about the odd South Pole birds and the ocean on which they, and we, depend for survival. They found 38 colonies, 10 of them previously unknown. They also found that 6 colonies don’t exist anymore (not good news for penguins or us). All these discoveries because the GIS specialist was looking at a base map.

I don’t have a ton of wall-space at work, but I used the best part over my desk for a world map I got from National Geographic (yes, Winkel-Tripel projection). It’s a little odd to have a paper map on the wall in a building devoted almost entirely to digital geospatial work. I can instantly get any map I want on the work connection from GoogleBingEarthQuestMap, or even pull data for anywhere in the world.

That poster is a base map for my thoughts. It’s the perfect illustration of combining remote sensing and GIS to better understand our world. That map was made from data collected by all sorts of people using just about every technology humans have ever invented.

In a span of 15,000 years our species has gone from “Hey, we finally got decent stone spear tips!” to landing on the moon and sending robots to every planet in our system (sorry, Pluto, you’ll still get a visit in 2015). And we still have so much to explore. Whether it’s LIMA or my Nat Geo poster, a good base map shows both what we do know and what we don’t know. They make you think and ask questions. We don’t draw dragons or sea monsters on the blank spots anymore, we just write “No Data Available”, but the point is the same. Remote sensing and GIS are some of the best tools we have to help us fill in those blank spots. No dragons yet, but penguins are cooler anyway.

What does your base map show? What questions does it make you ask? How are you using remote sensing and GIS to find the answers and fill in your blank spots? What penguins (or dragons) have you found? Hit the comments, I’d love to hear your answers.

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