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With Hurricane Isaac making landfall along the gulf coast, and the media coverage relying heavily on maps to provide vital information about the behavior of the storm and the areas affected, we turn to Dr. Harry J. (Jimmy) Wilson, visiting assistant professor of geography, to explain how geographic information systems (GIS), is used to process data and keep people safe.
Q. What is GIS?
Geographic Information Systems are information systems that rely on geographic data. They enable us to capture, store, retrieve and analyze spatial data quickly and efficiently. GIS also allows us to automate map and report generation for dissemination over the internet.
Q. How is GIS used to track hurricanes like Isaac?
GIS is a very important tool for tracking weather events such as tropical storms and hurricanes, and also for predicting impact and preparedness. Most of the process is now automated. Remotely sensed weather data is gathered from a variety of sources and then converted into a format that can be used. These are usually the tables, charts and maps that we all have seen on news and weather broadcasts.
Q. What information can GIS provide to help prepare for hurricanes and other dangerous storms?
Aside from enabling us to automatically produce maps that show us at a glance the location and severity of tropical storms and hurricanes, GIS allows us to predict the movement of storms into our immediate future. For example, as of Tuesday, August 28, 2012, Hurricane Isaac is predicted to move northward across southern state, through the midwest and impact Ohio by Sunday morning. This may sound trivial, but remember that in 2008 Hurricane Ike brought gusts of over 70 mph and heavy rainfall to the Cincinnati area, and caused over $550 million in damage within Ohio. We all should be better prepared for another such event.
Q. What role will GIS play in future storm tracking and predicting?
I was reading a blog this afternoon managed by climatologists who are keenly aware of the importance of this issue. The comment that stuck in my mind pertained to how far we have advanced in just a few decades, with innovations in instruments such as certain radars that automatically gather a wide array weather information, advances in computer technology that have improved our ability to store data, and improvements in specialized software packages that allow us to automatically integrate all that weather data into virtual environments so that we can easily track current weather and predict into the future. The blogger also mentioned, and rightly so, that while our ability to predict has improved dramatically in recent years, the sheer number of variables and their relationship between each other at any given time prevent us from accurately predicting weather even a few days into the future. That is why there are so many computer models, each showing different paths for tropical storms and hurricanes. Still, we've come a long way from counting fuzzy caterpillars as a way of predicting the weather.