From The Dirt
01/13/2015 by Jared Green


A new, free, web-based tool from the US Geological Survey (USGS) and ESRI allows us to gain a better understanding of the ecological character of any place in the world. As the team explains, the web site can be used by everyone — from local government officials and planners to landscape architects and conservationists — to visualize the world’s complex ecological patterns. This also means in the future the tool can be used to map the impacts of climate change and development on ecosystems over time.

According to Randy Vaughan, ESRI, an enormous amount of science (and data) went into creating the tool. “The globe was divided in cells at a base resolution of 250 meters.” Each cell was then assigned input layers of data that “drive ecological processes.”

When users search for any place in the world, they see a map, with four layers of information. There’s info on bio-climates, described with terms like “warm wet” or “hot dry”; landforms, with terms such as “flat plains” or “mountains”; rock type, with terms like “carbonate sedimentary rock” or “metamorphics”; and also land cover, the vegetation that results from these conditions, described with terms like “forest, farmland, or grassland.” For all data types, users can also further zoom in, all the way to the street level.


The data has resulted in an amazing number of possible combinations: There is now a “global raster data layer with 47,650 unique combinations of the four input layers. The facets were then aggregated into 3,923 ecological land units (ELUs).” These ELUs themselves represent a new, data-based way of organizing the biosphere, based in “ecological and physio-graphic land surface features.”

Roger Sayre, senior scientist for Ecosystems, USGS, said the way the tool was set up also “advances an objective, repeatable big data approach to the synthesis and classification of ecologically important data.” This big data approach means “mapping can be updated as better or more current input layers become available.”

Indeed, the team is hoping for lots more new data, given there are “known and expected deficiencies in the current input layers. For example the release of the new SRTM 30 meter elevation terrain data provides an opportunity create a higher resolution landforms map.” They are looking into adding data about social and cultural factors. USGS and ESRI also hope that other scientists will use GIS to add their own layers and do their own analysis over time.

According to Fast Company, these first maps really are the beginning of an even more compelling analysis. Sayre said: “The map is a baseline for these ecosystems, so we’ll be able to assess them for climate change or other disturbances. We see the value of the dataset as a spatial accounting framework. In the future, we’ll be able to show them as a temporal sequence [of the world unfolding].”

Also, check out a map the team created of 10 of the world’s ecological hot spots, places with high levels of ecological diversity.