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Tracking Florence

GIS is key to planning for major storms and vital to the recovery efforts afterward

As Hurricane Florence prepares to make landfall, we asked Dr. Katy Rossiter, assistant professor of geography, about the science behind tracking large storms. Rossiter teaches geographic information systems (GIS), a discipline that harnesses the predictive potential of data. ONU offers students a minor in geography with a focus on GIS. According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the geospatial job market, including photogrammetrists and cartographers, is projected to grow 29 percent from 2014 to 2024. This is much faster than the average industry. GIS is commonly used in business, engineering and government.

Q: What is GIS?

Rossiter: Geographic information systems (GIS) is a tool that combines the power of computer hardware, software, data and people to stack layers of information. You can quickly display spatial data seen in the real world to create maps, calculate statistics and help answer important questions about our world. It lets us visualize, question, analyze and interpret data to understand relationships, patterns and trends.

Q: How Is GIS Used to track hurricanes like Florence?

Rossiter: Remotely sensed weather data, from satellites or airplanes for example, is gathered to help computer models predict the path of Hurricane Florence. The data is also used in GIS to help create the maps, charts and tables you may have seen on the news and internet. A picture is worth a thousand words.  Seeing the path of the hurricane, especially of an enormous storm like Florence, can quickly relay a lot of information to many people. 

Q: What information can GIS provide to help prepare for hurricanes and other dangerous storms?

Rossiter: GIS is extremely valuable during any natural disaster. Mapping the path of a storm is helpful, but what GIS does really well is layer information within the same map. For instance, you can overlay the predicted path of Florence with data to find people that might need assistance getting out of harm’s way. Maybe you have a large elderly population, or lot of people that rely solely on public transportation and might not have the ability to drive themselves. Or, perhaps the storm is predicted to cross paths with several large hospitals in your area. Maps created using GIS can identify the locations and people in danger. GIS also aids in planning evacuation routes, and maps can show people where shelters are located, and whether they are full, in real time.

Q: Can GIS play a role after the storm?

Rossiter: GIS specialists and analysts can often be found at the scene after a natural disaster, sometimes even volunteering their time to help with recovery efforts. They can easily display where damage has occurred and manage cleanup efforts and rebuilding. Overlaying the path of the storm with roads, buildings, homes and other infrastructure can also help identify the amount of money lost in property damage. GIS can even help plan for the future by analyzing coastal changes after the storm and who might be affected in future hurricanes.


Dr. Katy Rossiter

More about geographic information systems:

ONU student GIS projects