Where in the World?

Here’s another neat test. Don’t worry, this one isn’t timed and you can use other resources to figure it out.

The BBC put together a game that combines Google’s ground-level photography with maps. They give you a starting point and allow you to look around (search for signage and landmarks, check the angle of the sun). Once you figure out where you are at, place a point on the inset map and make a guess.

Some spots are truly hard to figure out (no signage!) while others are super easy (major landmarks nearby). Either way, give it a shot! It’s a cool way to visit unique places in the world without leaving the comforts of home.

BBC’s Geoguessr

Can you beat my (terrible) score of 6,998?

Today is GIS Day 2014

What is GIS?

No, that doesn’t stand for gastro-intestinal system nor the General Mills stock exchange label. For me, it stands for Geographic Information System. The standard definition of what a GIS is goes something like this:

A computer system designed to capture, integrate, edit, share, store, manipulate, analyze, display, manage, and formally present all types of spatial data.*

* From Wikipedia (more or less).

What is its history?

Map by John Snow showing clusters of cholera outbreaks in London, 1854. Image via Wikipedia.

Technically, one can say it’s been around since cartographers started scribbling lines on hide, but formally it all got started in the 1960s with the rise of computers, which allowed for easier data dissemination and manipulation.

There’s a long history of government, particularly defense departments, playing key roles in GIS software development.

But today, the commercialization of GIS is evident with the proliferation of companies like ESRI, and, well, ESRI. However, there is a whole host of open source solutions like QGIS.

How has it changed the world?

If you’ve used a BING, Yahoo!, or Google Map, you’ve used a GIS. Or rather, the fruit of a GIS (and GPS). GIS has made spatial information available to the public in way that normal paper maps just never did (or could). Instead of a static map that shows where things are (or were), we can ask the map where the items we are interested are right now and where they might be.

How I got into GIS

By accident. I worked for a small natural resource department with California State Parks and someone had to do it. My ability to learn quickly and natural affinity to maps made me an easy choice to head up the effort in our office to develop our GIS database.

Since then, I’ve worked on many projects in a variety of fields and, honestly, I can say I haven’t gotten bored. The application of GIS is infinite. Everything has a spatial component to it. A crime happens in our neighborhoods. Disease spreads from one nation to another. And plants propagate across the landscape. Each of these things can be mapped, tallied, and analysed to help us better understand our world.

Time for a Test

Believe it or not, tests can be fun. At least, when geography is involved!

National Geographic hosts an online GeoBee (like a spelling bee, but way easier). If you are a student, you can participate officially through your school. Or if you’d just like to join in for fun, they have daily quizzes you can take – every day!

Can you beat my first-time score of 8,312.5?

Find out here at the National Geographic GeoBee Quiz and report back! This is timed, so the quicker you answer the better.

Good luck!


How We Communicate Geography

With maps, of course.

So, just what is a map? And why is it important in understanding geography?

Maps are visual representation of what we see around us. They show spatial relationships between things (transportation corridors, destinations, physical features on the landscape, etc) and, more importantly, maps show the connections between all these things.

Why should you care?

Maps have never been as widely used as they are today.


Maps are being used in just about every niche and function you can imagine.

Taking a trip on a bus?
Map on subway in downtown Santiago, Chile
Map on subway in downtown Santiago, Chile

Your city has probably installed map panels at popular junctions or on the bus itself.

Playing a video game?
From www.thesixthasix.com
From www.thesixthasix.com

There’s probably a map included to help guide you through the game. See that tiny map to the right of Spiderman? Can’t be flying through the streets unless you know where you are at and where you are going!

Trying to find that great, new restaurant?

header-androidYour phone has a map application that will get you there in just a few screen taps.

You use maps to navigate through your life. Don’t you think it might be important to know a bit more about them?

History of Maps

You might be shocked to find out that maps as we know them today are a relatively new thing to humans. Prior to the late 1200s, maps were…well, they were all over the map. Depictions of the world around us varied widely and you probably wouldn’t have recognized them as maps (nor were they called that).

T-O or Mappa mundi map. From www.eaudrey.com.

Proper land surveying techniques were developed independently in many regions of the world and the maps that resulted from those efforts are definitely recognizable. However, like most information, maps were often hoarded by the educated and powerful. Accurate spatial information meant knowing where resources were and how to transport them, and it meant knowing where your enemies lived and how to access them. Keeping that information secret determined who ruled the land.

It wasn’t until the Europe’s Age of Discovery, and the invention of the printing press, that maps became more common place and standardization in visual representations were adopted.

Snapshot of a standard DeLorme street map.
Snapshot of a standard DeLorme street map.

Today, with the proliferation of the internet and smartphones with map applications, accurate spatial information is literally at our fingertips and comes in forms we might not be expecting.

Click on map for an interactive experience!
Click on map for an interactive experience!

Maps of the Future

Many of us (okay, only me) still like physical maps printed on paper with ingenious folds. We spread them out on the kitchen table and pore over the details, learning interesting names for physical features or realizing how close that creek is to our own backyard.

But more and more people today are using a different kind of map. With smartphone and other mobile devices, we now have the entire world in the palm of our hands.

Just who knows what the future holds for maps? Maybe one day we’ll all just insert a map-chip into our brains and know where everything is (even ourselves – yikes, getting a bit “big brotherish”, eh?). Or maybe you’ll just create custom maps based on the places you go every day.

There’s no way for me to predict the future of maps because the field is wide open to innovation. It always has been and will continue to be so in the future. What I do know is that maps will stay with us for the long haul because they link us to the world.

Will the map become the place?

Read/listen to Del rigor en la ciencia by Jorge Lius Borges. English version here: On Exactitude in Science by Jorge Luis Borges.

Geography Awareness Week 2014

Geography Awareness Week is a movement to expose you, the public, to geography.

It all got started in 1987 by the National Geographic Society when their staff became alarmed at how geo-illiterate U.S. citizens have become. Since geography is no longer taught in earnest in many U.S. schools (having suffered from the reader/writing/arithmetic focus), most folks are not aware of how geography shapes their cities, farms, and the interactions between humans and the environment. Not to mention all the physical processes on this earth that go on regardless of what we do.

To help us all better understand the world around us, Geography Awareness Week was created to promote geography in our lives to

understand where things are found, why they are there, and how they develop and change over time.

~ from the National Geographic Geography Awareness About page.


Each year, Geography Awareness Week has a theme associated with it. This year, that theme is “The Future of Food”. Hmmm, you’d think I’d be all over that theme, but to be honest, I don’t have any particular expertise in the department (other that eating it), so I’ll leave that to the food connoisseurs out there. Check out this interesting Thanksgiving food map put together by the staff over at ESRI:

Where green beans come from (ESRI, 2014). Click on image to access the interactive map.
Where green beans come from (ESRI, 2014). Click on image to access the interactive map.

This interactive map highlights where the food on your Thanksgiving dinner plate likely came from. I was surprised to learn that the green beans we eat are grown all over the United States.

Did you know that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow one (only one) almond?

Map image from Mother Jones.
Map image from Mother Jones.

Check out this article from Mother Jones to find out more about where food is grown in California and how much water is needed. The article also highlights which cities in California use the most water.

What you’ll get from DMS this week:

As a GIS professional, I deal with geography every single day. Most of the work I do involves showing where things are and how they relate to each other. This week, I’ll go beyond that by highlighting places on the internet you can go to find out about maps, test your geographic knowledge, explain exactly what it is we GIS folks do, explore how geographic shapes conflict, and then move us out beyond this world.

We’ve Never Seen This Before

Did you see that?

The internet (and the written word for that matter) has its drawbacks. One of which is that you could not see me roll my eyes back at the title of this post.

It’s easy to forget history. It’s in the past, right? Can’t do anything about it now so why give it any thought? There are bills to pay, people to see, and that random YouTube video demanding your attention. Who’s got time for the history?

Well, as the saying goes, if one does not know one’s history, one is doomed to repeat it.

And since plants and ecological processes are not people with memories, rest assured they repeat themselves.

So, whenever I read that someone is shocked at recent fire behavior, I can’t help but trudge out the many fires that were “unprecedented”.

The History

…clouds of smoke have been sent forth from a tremendous fire… (1)

…fires raging from San Bernardino to Jacumba. (2)

A dense volume of smoke overhung the city…from the combined influence of the weather and the fires raging in the mountains. (3)

Those media quotes sound familiar, don’t they? However, they use language we don’t hear of too often now-a-days. Today, we see words like “catastrophic” and “devastating”. “Raging” seems to have gone out of vogue.

Wondering when those quotes were printed?

  1. September 11, 1869 in the Los Angeles Star
  2. September 21, 1869 also in the L.A. Star. Note: the distance between San Bernardino and Jacumba (on the border) is over 150 miles.
  3. October 8, 1875 in the L.A. Star.

In 1987, R.A. Minnich published a paper in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (77:599-618). A research brief of the paper can be found here on the California Fire Science Consortium (CFSC) website. The title of his paper is rather long, so I won’t bore you with it, but I will summarize CFSC’s summary.

Prior to fire suppression in the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California, frequent fires were reported in the growing metropolis of Los Angeles. The populous and officials were so concerned about these fires they even studied them.

USGS reports for the area, dated 1899 and 1900, showed large areas of chaparral had been repeatedly burned with severe damage to soil and water holding capacity. ~ CFSC Research Brief, May 2012, emphasis mine.

In addition to these post-fire effects, presumably started by lightning strikes since many of the reported fires also indicated that a rain event occurred during or prior to the fires, fire behavior was reported to be both smoldering and intense, with frequent reports of “raging infernos”. Not unlike the “catastrophic” fires reported in our media today.

If you’d like to read more (and gain some perspective), check out this paper original published in Ecological Applications (Vol. 17, No.3). Talk about incendiary language (“fearful flames”). And let’s not forget the summer of 1988. While not in California, that year, the fires in and around Yellowstone National Park exhibited the widest range of fire behavior you can imagine. And it was often reported that the “catastrophic” fires ruined the park. But it didn’t. Less than one-tenth of one percent of the park experienced temperatures high enough to kill deep roots. Read about what scientists are saying about those fires here.

Remember, back before our public agencies started putting wildfires out, the weather or geography did it. Either a large enough rain even occurred to put the fire out or it ran out of vegetation (fuel) to burn. While our current and recent fire suppression policies may have altered the frequency and distribution of wildfire on the landscape, it sure as heck didn’t stop it. And while fire suppression may have contributed to “extreme” fires, it is nothing new under the sun.

In addition to the likelihood that fires (both small, low intensity fires and large, high intensity fires) will continue to dominate our landscape, our ever growing population also continues to increase the intersection of human settlements and our wildlands (called the Wildland Urban Interface or WUI), providing ever more opportunities for accidental fire starts and arson activity.

So, yes, fires are getting more frequent, and they are impacting relatively larger areas. But that doesn’t mean it’s new or unprecedented on the landscape.

Fire is Scary

Photo courtesy of John McColgan and The Public Safety Electronic Post Office

When you have a wall of flame in front of you, puckering your skin and standing your hair on end, believe me, you are scared (shitless, I think is the term often used here).

And fire does destroy. It destroys forest/plant systems, shelter and food sources for many wildlife species, and our homes. In addition, it also rejuvenates forest/plant systems and provides new opportunities for wildlife. And, one might say it presents interesting challenges to us. Regardless, fire as a process of change on our California landscapes has been happening for millennium and there is nothing we can do stop that (except, of course, change our climate – but that’s another topic all together).

But just because we are scared of something that is dangerous doesn’t mean we need to over-react and attempt to eliminate it. For the past hundred years or so, we’ve tried that – and it doesn’t work.

What To Do?

Post-fire view of the King Fire, Pollack Pines, CA. Photo by P.E. Mandeno.
Post-fire view of the King Fire, Pollack Pines, CA. Photo by P.E. Mandeno.

In my next post, I’ll highlight some of the things we are learning to do right when it comes to wildfire in California. There are still many things we are doing wrong, but we know now that eliminating fire from our ecosystem will not save us from devastating fires. They happened before we got here and they’ll happen after we are long gone. If we intend to stay for the long haul, what we must do instead is learn to live with fire.


GIS Day 2014

Is coming!

If you are in Santa Rosa, CA next week, come on by the Finley Community Center on the corner of W College Ave and Stony Point Road/Marlow Road.

This free, educational event will be held on Wednesday, November 19th from 9am to 3pm. You’ll get a chance to interact with many GIS professionals, vendors, and community agencies. We have several speakers on the Sonoma Veg Map, the South Napa Earthquake response, restoration planning on the Napa River, and much more.

And we’ll also have a few special emergency vehicles showing off their mobile mapping technology.

For more information and to register for GIS Day 2014 go to North Bay GIS Day. If you register, you’ll automatically be entered to win a Griffin Map Design “It’s a GIANT world…” t-shirt:

See you there!


Loma Prieta Anniversary

I almost forgot I created this map (click on it to get a bigger version):

Loma Prieta Earthquake 1989 v2

I did it quite some time ago and I should probably update it to a web map (another thing to put on the to-do list…).

Regardless, this anniversary along with the recent quake in Napa, California is a good reminder to update your emergency preparedness kit.

What’s in your kit?

Frankly, my is rather poor. I have a 5-gallon bucket with a couple of jugs of water along with a flashlight – batteries are near dead. I definitely need to update that! From the Red Cross, here’s a basic list of items to have at the ready:

  • Water—one gallon per person, per day (3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home)
  • Food—non-perishable, easy-to-prepare items (3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home)
  • Flashlight
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank radio (NOAA Weather Radio, if possible)
  • Extra batteries
  • First aid kit – Anatomy of a First Aid Kit
  • Medications (7-day supply) and medical items
  • Multi-purpose tool
  • Sanitation and personal hygiene items
  • Copies of personal documents (medication list and pertinent medical information, proof of address, deed/lease to home, passports, birth certificates, insurance policies)
  • Cell phone with chargers
  • Family and emergency contact information
  • Extra cash
  • Emergency blanket
  • Map(s) of the area

Where were you during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake?

I was at my apartment in Davis, California – asleep (yes, I take afternoon naps). It woke me up, but only long enough to say, “What was that?”

Sixty three victims of the quake were not so lucky.

Bigger and more means better, right?

In the case of wildfires, not necessarily. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean worse. The fire landscape, and our place in it is a lot more complicated than that.

While the recent King fire raged this past summer, my husband commented that it was unprecedented.

Okay, he didn’t use that word exactly, but essentially, he felt concerned about the size and severity of the fire. And while I agree the King fire was unacceptably large and severe, I also want to stress that fire of any size is not an uncommon occurrence in our California landscapes. Not only is it common, but it is a very natural occurrence and, sometimes, necessary.

And here’s the clincher, even fires that burn hundreds of thousands of acres are common and necessary. In fact, the size of fires we see today pale to obscurity when compared to estimated pre-1800s acres burned. Remember, back then, there were no fire-fighters around to put out a blaze. No air tankers with loads of retardant to dump. And no (or few) homes to burn.

So, yes, fires like the King fire are terrible. They are often started by stupid humans and burn so severely they wipe out large chunks of our forests. But, do keep in mind that on the grand scheme of things, it’s just a drop in the “reservoir” bucket of fire “potential” (see my post Every day is a burn day).

Recent Fire History

Each year, CalFire (along with federal and local agencies) records and documents all fires that occur within and on the immediate border of California. They compile the data and offer it to the public in GIS format. I often use this data layer when compiling maps for reports. So, let’s look at the numbers. In particular, in this post I’ll look at the last 100 years of data compiled by CalFire. In later posts, I would like to compare these numbers to paleo-fire history data. However, spatial estimates of fire size based on fire scars is not very easy to come by. But I’ll take a look at what we do know and extrapolate from there and we’ll see just how “unprecedented” fires like the King fire (2014), or even the Rim fire of 2013, are.

More Fire

For the past 100 years in California, though the number of fires reported each year varies, there’s no denying that each year we see more fire-starts. In addition, once these fires get “out of hand”, they consume what we think are significant swaths of forested land.


The graph above shows 100 years of reported* fire history in California. The red line graphs the total number of fires for each year. We see that it varies from year to year, sometimes significantly so. However, the overall trend (marked as a dark, gray line) is increasing. Each year, the number of fires reported has gone up.

In addition, the number of fires over 100,000 acres are becoming more frequent. Prior to 1970s, fires of this size occurred once every ten years or so. But now? Every year. In 2002, 2003, and 2007, we had two large fires occurring in one fire season.


So, yes, there are more wildland fires dotting our dry landscape and they are getting bigger. This is obvious.

But – is that a bad thing?

Paleo-fire History

Well, if you have a home in Sierra Nevada, or if you own timber that can burn at the drop of a match, or if you care about our ecosystem, then, yes, it is.

However, it doesn’t mean we need less fire, but more.

Getting numbers for fire history prior to European settlement of California is rather hard, but we do have extensive evidence of fire regularly impacting our landscape. This evidence comes in the form of charcoal sediments in lake beds and fire scars on trees (both living and dead). Study after study have shown that fire visits our forests as frequently as every 2 years**. It’s not hard to imagine every year, given the right conditions, a fire was burning on the California landscape.

In addition, these fires would burn pretty much all year long. The only thing that stopped them were:

  • A lack of fuel,
  • Relative humidity increased to the point of fire extinction, or
  • A drenching rain came along.

It’s not hard to imagine that these fires managed to burn extensive swaths of California and beyond. Our native plants and the very ecosystem have lived with the threat of fire longer than we’ve been here. In subsequent posts, I’ll argue how modern fire suppression has harmed rather than helped.

Notes and References
  • * Data downloaded from CalFire, Fire Perimeters 2013 data version.
  • Wildfire – A century of failed forest policy edited by George Wuerthner (2006 by the Foundation for Deep Ecology).

Historic Landmarks Web Map


GIS Day 2014 is coming up, and in preparation, I set out for myself to create three web maps.

The first is a map showing the twenty-seven historic landmarks in Sonoma County. Below is a screen shot of the web map as viewed in Google Chrome. It has some nifty functionality such as the bookmarked Zoom locations, a nice grid display of the features on the left-hand side of the screen, and when you click on a point, you can drill down for more information on each locale.


I utilized ESRI’s Shortlist story map template which can be downloaded here. It was quite simple to make and didn’t require any specialized software what-so-ever. You do need an ArcGIS Online account. Go here to create one.

My next two projects utilizing ESRI’s templates will be more complicated and feature derived data products. Those should be fun and I’ll keep you posted once they are completed.

On a separate, but related note, did you notice I mentioned GIS Day? It’s coming up. Like, in about two months! For those of you in the north San Francisco Bay area, mark your calendars (November 19, 2014) and get ready for a fun and educational day at the Finley Center in Santa Rosa, CA.