What is GIS and how does Great Smoky Mountains National Park use it?

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Twenty years ago, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park map room might have been devoted to heavy, flat-drawer filing cabinets — each filled with stacks of intricately detailed mountain maps. Nowadays, the room is much more spartan.

No more numerous paper maps and heavy cupboards. In their place is a relatively modest bank of monitors connected to an intensive processing system in the northeast corner of the Twin Creeks Science and Education Center.

Leading this workstation is GIS specialist Tom Colson, whose role is to leverage research and data collected by other park service departments, integrate this information directly onto the digital outlines of Smokies and to facilitate their use and open sharing. The detail-rich map layers and tools that Colson creates and manages are made instantly accessible to NPS field personnel and remote researchers anywhere in the world.

GIS, or geographic information systems, are applications used to create maps at their most basic level. But the complexity of what is involved and possible in contemporary GIS in terms of data analysis, modeling and interactive querying is hard to overestimate. Instead, Colson opts for the understatement: “Someone in this park has a job to do. There is a service to be provided depending on their location. And we provide this service.

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Colson’s summary only begins to hint at the number of ways that GIS services have become essential to virtually every science team working in the Smokies. Through the free online GSMNP GIS portal, which hosts over 1,000 downloads per week, the many and varied datasets collected in the park over the decades come to life in bright and colorful layers.

GIS specialist Tom Colson sits at his workstation at the Twin Creeks Science and Education Center in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Colson creates map layers and other information tools that are essential to guide the work of many types of researchers and park service employees.

The result is a mountain of fascinating detail: blue veins trace the hydrology of mountain streams, the distribution of fish populations and levels of acid deposition. Deep greens follow the vegetation. Browns and teals map the locations of alien species to be managed. Dusty oranges and reds reflect the gradations in severity of soil and vegetation burns caused by the Chimney Tops 2 fire. Ecoregions, critical habitats, and areas of high light and noise pollution are all carefully highlighted and separated.

Even more maps look to the future, illustrating projected forest cover losses, areas of potential erosion, even travel times from public roads to different sections of the park in the event of an emergency. The Smokies Atlas uses GIS to establish species distributions based on sightings in the park.

Looking at this variety and the granular detail contained in the GIS archive, the real-time impact of coordinated scientific research passing through Twin Creeks becomes as clear as a bright green dividing line. Research and hard work in the field translates, through the rigorous and technical work of GIS, into a faster search and rescue operation in the field, more effective management of invasive species and better conservation of endangered species. endemic criticism of the Smokies.

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Plus, GIS layers and datasets can be overlaid and compared, creating problem-solving shortcuts when it comes to investigating cause and effect in the natural world. For example, critical habitats for endangered bats could be compared to areas of noise and light pollution. Areas of excessive noise and light pollution can be correlated to their impacts on wildlife, or areas of higher fire risk can be overlaid on travel time from major roads to help determine best solutions for worst-case scenarios . The infinitely interactive nature of GIS means that there are endless possibilities for its use.

The Smokies Atlas is a powerful interactive tool for creating layered maps using GIS data collected in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  On this map, fire disturbances marked in pink are shown next to the predicted distribution of Le Conte's rove beetle species that live in leaf litter.  The tools are available for free public use at environment.atlasofthesmokies.org.

“What’s unique about GIS is that it used to be a very specialized field. Five years ago, if you wanted to make a card, you had to physically walk into this office and ask for the card. And you would have one in two to four weeks,” Colson said. “Now what we’re building are systems and solutions for people to create their own maps.”

As for the future, Colson thinks the GIS department still has a lot of work to do at the park, from specific research and planning projects to day-to-day maintenance.

“As technology advances, it requires more complexity – it requires more administration,” he said. “It requires more advanced troubleshooting skills, storage, bandwidth, memory, etc.”

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From carefully orchestrating infrastructure upgrades to creating a plan to protect fragile native species, most jobs in the Smokies inevitably depend on a reliable track record. For all of this vital groundwork in the park, the park’s GIS office is the first port of call – a buzzing hub that plots the latest data points in a picture of the Smokies that gets a little clearer every day.

Aaron Searcy

This story is an edited excerpt from a much longer article by Frances Figart, Aaron Searcy and Elise Anderson that appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of “Smokies Life” magazine. Aaron Searcy is a publishing associate with the 29,000-member Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit educational partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Learn more about SmokiesInformation.org and contact the author at aaron@gsmassoc.org.

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