Juneau Nature

Natural & cultural history of Juneau & Southeast Alaska

Juneau Nature - Natural & cultural history of Juneau & Southeast Alaska

GIS (Geographic Information Systems)

The 21st-century cartographer

New tools for old naturalists

In March, 2015, I gave a fireside presentation at the Mendenhall Visitor Center on game changing technologies for field and office. In the field, what most excites me recently is UAV photography. In the office, advances revolve around GIS, and the cartographic program ArcMap. As of spring, 2014, I was part of a team that got to use the first widespread LiDAR coverage in the Alexander Archipelago. Toward the end of this 31-minute talk, I also give examples of IfSAR technology, which has subsequently become available for nearly all of Southeast.

New tools for old naturalists from Richard Carstensen on Vimeo.

If I could give one piece of advice to a high school student contemplating a career in forestry, fisheries, wildlife biology, geology, or any social science with a geographic component, it would be to take a course in GIS (geographic information systems).

Why do we live here? Jan-May, 2013

Kathleen Galau's computer lab at Thunder Mountain High School

Kathleen Galau’s computer lab at Thunder Mountain High School

In 2013 I assisted with a semester course organized by Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, called Why do we live here; factors in village site selection. Our high school students received a college credit from UAS. The day we spent in Kathleen Galau’s GIS lab at Thunder Mountain High School was the intellectual convergence—of many threads generously shared in previous sessions by culture bearers and scientists. Through advanced mapping technology, our students each selected their own winter village site, and assessed its merits and shortcomings.

Until this point, the students had been sponges, soaking in all the ideas and experiences brought to our class and upwelling from field sessions. Now they shifted toward presentation mode, building the case for Why we live here.

Sample ArcMap window. Black rectangle frames our study area—mostly Áak’w and T’áaku Aaní, but also a bit of Xutsnoowú and Kéex’ Kwáan country to the south. Students each selected a winter village site within this frame, and had access to everything in the ‘table of contents’ or TOC—that bar on the left—except the top layer showing where the villages actually were. We had decided at the outset of the course not to share these locations until later. In this view, layers displayed (i.e. checked in the TOC) include: glaciers, saltwater, and lakes, with a hillshade base. In addition are two layers (red-circled) I created especially for the course: • Lakes hosting gaat, sockeye, most important fish for smoking on the northwest coast—shown as red dots. • Clans, color-coded in 2 spectrums for moiety. ‘Hot’ colors—red through yellow—are Eagle. ‘Cool’ colors—blue through green—are Raven.

Sample ArcMap window. Black rectangle frames our study area—mostly Áak’w and T’áaku Aaní, but also a bit of Xutsnoowú and Kéex’ Kwáan country to the south. Students each selected a winter village site within this frame, and had access to everything in the ‘table of contents’ or TOC—that bar on the left—except the top layer showing where the villages actually were. We had decided at the outset of the course not to share these locations until later. In this view, layers displayed (i.e. checked in the TOC) include: glaciers, saltwater, and lakes, with a hillshade base. In addition are two layers (red-circled) I created especially for the course:
• Lakes hosting gaat, sockeye, most important fish for smoking on the northwest coast—shown as red dots.
• Clans, color-coded in 2 spectrums for moiety. ‘Hot’ colors—red through yellow—are Eagle. ‘Cool’ colors—blue through green—are Raven.

Sample of factors in village-site selection that can be viewed as color-coded layers (snow, clan boundaries, vegetation) or point files (place names, fish species). In this example, 2 students first looked at broad spatial patterns for ‘back-Douglas’ and Admiralty Islands, then gradually homed in on what today’s maps call “Admiralty Cove,” (lower right panels). For even closer views, they ‘flew’ the beaches in Shorezone, in search of boulder-free canoe ramps and tiny stream outlets not mapped by Forest Service or Fish & Game channel-type layers. Their ultimate selections came down to drinking water and beach steepness. The girls chose sites on opposite sides of the cove, but later agreed the eastern site probably had better goon héen. (We subsequently found an 1890 map confirming village location.)

Sample of factors in village-site selection that can be viewed as color-coded layers (snow, clan boundaries, vegetation) or point files (place names, fish species). In this example, 2 students first looked at broad spatial patterns for ‘back-Douglas’ and Admiralty Islands, then gradually homed in on what today’s maps call “Admiralty Cove,” (lower right panels). For even closer views, they ‘flew’ the beaches in Shorezone, in search of boulder-free canoe ramps and tiny stream outlets not mapped by Forest Service or Fish & Game channel-type layers. Their ultimate selections came down to drinking water and beach steepness. The girls chose sites on opposite sides of the cove, but later agreed the eastern site probably had better goon héen. (We subsequently found an 1890 map confirming village location.)

After an introduction to the program by Kathleen, I spent an hour or two walking students layer by layer through the entire ‘table of contents’ (that bar on the left of the map-window) for aakw-taaku.mxd. In Kathleen’s lab, students could watch a projected version of ArcMap on the wall, while replicating it with their own keyboards. To the instructors’ amazement, students swiftly recognized the relevance of each data layer, and instantly absorbed and remembered the logic behind command-sequences—something
generally requiring many repetitions when teaching ArcMap to older, less flexible minds.

For the last several hours of the lab session, we cut them loose to explore. Instructors roamed the lab, coaching, comparing shorelines, seal-densities, wondering about stories behind Tlingit place names, and suggesting different map layers. I’m sure that merely by tone of voice we betrayed enthusiasm for certain sites, or disinterest in others, thereby influencing their final choices. But the main point was for students to take the wheel, and begin applying all the village-location factors they’d been learning about to actual landscapes.

Our students may not have realized how extraordinary that March 30th lab day was (after all, this most powerful of cartographic programs takes less memory than the average shoot-em-up 3D video game), but the instructors floated home on cloud 9. Why we live here, in one protracted exploration, had become for every student a quest with a hundred answers, dangled over sheltering spruce-clad uplift benches and enticing coves and spacious fiords. From Aan Sakweis’s’í (Point Sherman village) to Ldakéex‘ (Gambier Bay), Lingít Aaní was suddenly a lot more real for a dozen teenagers.

As of 2015, the coolest new tools in GIS are:

LiDAR: cartographic game-changer

IfSAR: the Southeast ‘big picture