New Mapping Technology Is Making The World Safer As Climate Change Worsens

From New Jersey to Panama, GIS technology is offering a lot of opportunity.

The stinging, unforgiving sun cooks my body as we traverse the dirt road — 30-foot wide clearing carved out of dense jungle vegetation — leading down to the Rio Pacora in the Tres Brazos Valley of Panama. 

Over the sounds of howling monkeys, chirping birds and buzzing cicadas, Lauren Wheeler explains why tropical climates have just two seasons while temperate climates have four. Without missing a beat, she stops at a gathering of rogue cattle and scribbles the GPS coordinates in her notebook. 

We continue our trek and she points to a giant, muddy brown cane toad in the middle of the road. "If you lick the toxin on its back, you will hallucinate," she says with a smirk. We reach the river's edge, and she kneels down to note its location. 

Photo: Greg Lepore

Convinced there's nothing Lauren doesn't know about the jungle, I ask her the ultimate jungle trivia question. 

"How do you tell the difference between mud and cattle dung?"

"Obvious," she responds. "One smells."

Wheeler, 21 of Ocean, New Jersey, spent her summer in the Panamanian jungle as part of the Kalu Yala Institute's summer internship program. A student of James Madison University with a major in Geographic Science, her summer project involved using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to digitally map the Kalu Yala Institute's 500-acre basecamp.

I sit down with Wheeler under one of the camp's wooden ranchos for a lesson in GIS mapping, the pounding of a torrential downpour echoing all around us. Wheeler calls GIS "real-life Sims' City," a reference to the popular urban planning video game.

She pulls out her laptop and opens an example created by one of her former professors, Dr. Helmut Kraensle of James Madison University. Up comes a blank white screen entitled "Bavaria."

Wheeler explains that the first step in GIS mapping Bavaria, Germany involves referencing an aerial photo to digitally trace the region's boundary.  Next, she does the same to mark out Bavaria's districts. Then, she does the same for its cities and for each individual house within each city. Finally, she plots the route of each river that cuts through the region.

With this little information, she can select a river, plug in a hypothetical flood plain of x miles, and see exactly which homes would be affected by the flood. In this scaled down example, we find that if the Isar river in Munich floods to a distance of 4 miles, 200 homes will be affected.

Photo: Greg Lepore
Photo: Greg Lepore

The Bavaria example, she says, barely scratches the surface when it comes to the fortune-telling power of GIS mapping. Entire road systems, water systems, and soil types can be documented as can the slopes of hills and mountains. Data can even be stored regarding animal, plant and bacterial species that inhabit the area.

Dr. David L. Tulloch, a professor at Rutgers University and consultant for the New Jersey State Bureau of GIS , explains that GIS is important because it's the only modern technology with enough computing power to solve many of today's complicated issues involving urban planning, overpopulation, and climate change.

"Working with climate scientists, we can use GIS to model potential scenarios that help us understand the future. For example, climate scientists' estimates of sea level rise can be combined with data about transportation networks to find evacuation routes that need to be redesigned."

GIS has already proven successful in developing communities around the world. Dr. Tulloch says an exemplary instance its power is found right in Wheeler's home state of New Jersey.

Using the NJ Flood Mapper, an online application developed by the Rutgers' Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis, residents of New Jersey can explore the potential impacts of sea level rise on their beloved Jersey Shore. Property owners can also study the potential impact of more intense hurricanes on their properties. 

Dr. Tulloch says the NJ Flood Mapper is an exciting example of how GIS technology will continue to develop in the future. These new GIS applications, he says, will create opportunities for citizens to participate in decision-making processes that are based on information from GIS.

The main issue with GIS, Dr. Tulloch says, is that, "it's only as good as the data we are provided."

:In many areas there is a clear need to collect better data," Dr. Tulloch said. "Not only do the data need to be more detailed and more accurate but they also need to be updated more frequently."

In the case of the Kalu Yala Institute, the GIS map of the area will only be effective once all the relevant data has been inserted into the software. Wheeler says just a few weeks into her summer semester she realized the Institute faced a huge problem. While the area of Kalu Yala had been mapped, the data had not been accurately entered into GIS.

Wheeler admits she is a bit apprehensive. This will be her first time working with GIS mapping on her own.  

"There's no professor looking over my shoulder, and there's no right answer to double check and see that I did everything right." 

Still, Wheeler knows how important this opportunity is. In the future, the 21-year-old envisions a career as a GIS consultant working with international development agencies.

"Right now there are 24 mega cities in the world. Estimates say that by 2050 there will be 45-50. It's crucial that these cities are built sustainably, and GIS is critical in the development process."

Despite having no idea what GIS was before she began her undergraduate studies, Wheeler could never have imagined that she'd be here now, living at a base camp of five wooden ranchos in the heart of the Panamanian jungle, using GIS to map 500 acres of one of Central America's most remote areas.

Her project at Kalu Yala is a microcosm of the power wielded by GIS. In a world overcome by overpopulation, environmental degradation and climate change, Dr. Tulloch says it is GIS in the hands of people like Lauren Wheeler that promises to create a more sustainable world.

A graduate of The College of New Jersey, Greg Lepore is a nomadic storyteller constantly in pursuit of that next interesting conversation. Find him on Instagram at @greglepore and on the web at www.greglepore.com.