GIS and Climate Change Mapping

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GIS and Climate Change Mapping


A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a set of computer-based tools that collects, analyzes, and maps spatial data. Scientists use GIS mapping technology that employs methods of statistical analysis, database functions, and visualization benefits to study the impact of climatic changes. On the basis of these insights, researchers create profiles that illustrate the vulnerability of a specific geographical area to changes in its climate.

Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities in the industrialized world have led to a steady increase in average global temperatures. Melting glaciers, increasing numbers of storms, soil erosion, and other natural calamities are the fallout of climate change. A report published in 2006 by The Pew Center on Global Climate Change predicts that if greenhouse gas emissions do not subside, temperatures will rise by as much as 10°F (5.6°C) by the end of the twenty-first century.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The GIS mapping method is the result of a steady evolution of digital mapping approaches. The birth of the MIMO (map in–map out) model in 1959 introduced geocoding, data capture and analysis, and display features, which are integral to any GIS mapping software. The U.S. Census Bureau pioneered the large-scale use of digital mapping in the 1960s with the DIME (Dual Independent Map Encoding) data format. In 1966, the Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis at the Harvard Graduate School of Design developed SYMAP, a grid-based mapping program. Both the methods worked with mainframe computers.

The first attempt at studying climate change with GIS was made by the Canada Land Inventory in the 1960s, leading to the origin of the Canada Geographic Information System. It was used to classify land for agriculture, wildlife sustainability, and forestry.


DIGITAL MAPPING: Computerized production of maps, especially in geographic data systems.

GEOCODING: In geographic information systems, the assignment of geological data to particular features on maps or to other data records, such as photographs.

GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.

SPATIAL DATA: Data (individual measurements with numerical values) that are associated with points in space, such as measurement stations dotted over the face of a continent. Spatial data give information about location and are complementary to temporal data, which record changes over time.

VULNERABILITY: The degree to which an ecosystem or human community is susceptible to, or cannot adapt to or cope with, the negative effects of climate change. The type, intensity, and speed of climate change, the adaptive capacity of the system, and the sensitivity of the system to increased climate variability or climate change all determine vulnerability.

In 1970, the first GIS symposium was held in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. In the same decade, GIS software became commercially available to the public. Some of the leading names in this field were M&S Computing (changed to Intergraph Corporation in 1980) and Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI). With the advent of high-speed processors and with the increasing affordability of computer hardware, the application of GIS became more feasible. In 1992, ESRI launched ArcView, a mapping system with a graphical user interface. This enhanced the user experience and aided the proliferation of the technology.

By the 1990s, the use of GIS became widespread and also led to the launch of GIS-focused publications and activity groups. The technology made consistent improvements, including the emergence of multimedia GIS. This enabled the integration of GIS information with multimedia resources, such as photographs, animation, and video.

Impacts and Issues

Climate change has far-reaching implications on Earth's ecosystems, including its forest cover, water bodies, human activities, and wildlife. Each life form has a different level of sensitivity to these changes. The level to which the ecosystem will be affected by a climatic change is known as vulnerability. The analytical capabilities of GIS enable a researcher to store large amounts of information about a particular ecosystem and study its vulnerability. Furthermore, data obtained by GIS can help scientists rank areas based on vulnerability, allowing scientists to prioritize their efforts in dealing with vulnerable hot spots.

However, the adoption of GIS technology has also garnered criticism. The technology makes it possible to collect minute details from an identified geography, such as street address and postal codes. Consequently, privacy concerns and the potential for misuse of such data exist. Some government agencies have implemented GIS privacy protocols to regulate the flow of information.

See Also Forests and Deforestation; Glacier Retreat; Global Warming; Industry (Private Action and Initiatives).



Dow, Kirstin, and Thomas E. Downing. The Atlas of Climate Change: Mapping the World's Greatest Challenge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Martens, P., and A. J. McMichael. Environmental Change, Climate and Health: Issues and Research Methods. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

McMichael, A. J., et al. Climate Change and Human Health: Risks and Responses. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2003.

Web Sites

“Climate Change 101: Understanding and Responding to Global Climate Change.” Pew Center on Global Climate Change, October 12, 2006. <> (accessed October 28, 2007).

“GiS Timeline.” Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, May 31, 2000 <> (accessed October 28, 2007).

“Vulnerability Mapping: A GIS Based Approach to Identity Vulnerable Regions to Climate Change.” GIS Development, December, 2005.<> (accessed October 28, 2007).

Amit Gupta

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GIS and Climate Change Mapping

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