In This Article Use of GIS in Environmental Science

  • Introduction
  • Other Technologies: Remote Sensing, Global Positioning Systems, and Virtual Globes
  • Web-Based Approaches
  • Tools
  • Outreach and Education

Environmental Science Use of GIS in Environmental Science
Karam Ahmad, Melinda Laituri
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0081


The use of geographic information systems (GIS) in environmental science is a complex, multifaceted, and amorphous topic. Environmental science is a multidisciplinary field that integrates the biological, social, and physical sciences to address the seemingly intractable environmental problems humans face. Increasingly, GIS is the tool used to organize, analyze, manage, and visualize geospatial data that links models to derive outputs from environmental analysis and modeling. Coupled, the fields of GIS and environmental science cover a multitude of topics and approaches scattered across a broad bibliographic landscape. The environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s fueled the development of environmental science as a disciplinary field closely related to ecology, geography, and hydrology. In the 1980s, GIS became a more accessible tool for researchers through such programs as GRASS, Intergraph, and ESRI’s ArcInfo to characterize and analyze complex environmental problems. During the 1990s, approaches to environmental science focused on risk management, pollution, and monitoring. The coincidence of Internet development, data accessibility, visualization, and software modeling tools have created a perfect storm for the adoption of an integrated approach—environmental science with an integrated technology (GIS)—to address environmental issues. There has been a virtual explosion of applications and research utilizing GIS that cover a broad range of issues: water resources, climate change, urban planning, environmental justice, vulnerability studies, etc. This bibliography provides an entrée to the complex landscape of GIS applications for environmental science. It is not an exhaustive bibliography, but one that highlights some of the main avenues of GIS applications. Utilizing the Web of Science, Academic Search Premier, and Google Scholar, key articles on GIS and environmental science were accessed and organized around various thematic areas, including Disasters, Ecology, Pollution, Public Health and Epidemiology, and Water Resources Analysis. There are numerous other areas of this topic, but selecting these areas presents the reader with an overview of the field. Many of the articles in this bibliography provide a jumping off point to explore other topic areas that are not included in this bibliography.

General Overviews

The works in this section provide several general overviews of the breadth and depth of GIS and the sciences. These articles track the increasing sophistication of topics, techniques, and tools which have broadened the application of environmental sciences that utilize a geospatial approach. Goodchild 2003 provides an overview of the advances made in GIS analysis and modeling for environmental research. Goodchild’s discussion is a continuation of assessments that have tracked the advancement of GIS and environmental scientific research since 1993 (see Goodchild, et al. 1993). Burrough 1999 discusses the importance of geostatistics in enriching the tools for spatial analysis, generalization, and assessing spatial patterns. Emerging technological approaches include open source GIS applications for addressing big data, changing climate, and citizen science (Sui 2014); the utilization of 3D geo-databases for interdisciplinary research (Breunig and Zlatanova 2011); and the integration of remotely sensed data for studying the relationship of human societies and their biophysical environment (Turner 2003). Overview articles also include specific thematic areas, including natural resource management (Wright, et al. 2009), public health research (Jerrett, et al. 2010), and marine environment research (Palumbi, et al. 2003). These demonstrate the broad application of GIS and the environmental sciences.

  • Breunig, M., and S. Zlatanova. 2011. 3D geo-database research: Retrospective and future directions. Computers & Geosciences 37:781–803.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.cageo.2010.04.016E-mail Citation »

    Provides an examination of twenty-five years of geo-database research, including modeling, standards, and indexing. Describes the potential to use 3D geo-databases for urban planning, environmental monitoring, infrastructure management, and early warning or disaster management and response.

  • Burrough, P. A. 1999. GIS and geostatistics: Essential partners for spatial analysis. Environmental and Ecological Statistics 8 (April): 361–377.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1012734519752E-mail Citation »

    An early summary of the integration of geostatistics with GIS analysis. Describes the fundamentals of spatial sampling and pattern analysis. Discusses the conceptual basis of interpolation methods, error analysis, and generalization techniques to be used in environmental modeling.

  • Goodchild, M. F. 2003. Geographic information science and systems for environmental management. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 28:493–519.

    DOI: 10.1146/ Citation »

    In-depth review of trends in environmental research and management. Included are definitions of GIS terminology with overviews of GIS analysis/modeling, sources of geographic data, software design, and representation in GIS. This paper reveals GIS technology’s rapid changes and the author’s prescient view identifying many trends that have since come to fruition.

  • Goodchild, M. F., B. O. Parks, and L. T. Steyaert, eds. 1993. Environmental modeling with GIS. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    The result of a conference on environmental modeling and crosscutting themes, this text provides an early look at the links between computer modeling and environmental science through a conceptual discussion and a series of case studies.

  • Jerrett, Michael, Sara Gale, and Caitlin Kontgis. 2010. Spatial modeling in environmental and public health research. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7.4 (April): 1302–1329.

    DOI: 10.3390/ijerph7041302E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive summary of GIS methods used for environmental and public health research. Reviews public health research using such methods. The paper has two aims: (1) to summarize various geographic information science methods, and (2) to provide a review of studies utilizing such methods. It describes the field of spatial epidemiology.

  • Palumbi, S. R., S. D. Gaines, H. Leslie, and R. R. Warner. 2003. New wave: High-tech tools to help marine reserve research. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 1 (March): 73–79.

    DOI: 10.2307/3868033E-mail Citation »

    Describes new tools for understanding marine ecology and management of these complex areas. Mapping population movements and species dispersal provides monitoring mechanisms for protected and unprotected areas. These approaches provide lessons for other areas of conservation and ecosystem management of a terrestrial nature, including decision-making tools for multiple stakeholders.

  • Sui, D. 2014. Opportunities and impediments for open GIS. Transactions in GIS 18.1 (February): 1–24.

    DOI: 10.1111/tgis.12075E-mail Citation »

    Describes the potential for open GIS based upon open science with respect to data, environmental change, citizen science, and education. A visionary discussion on the future of GIS and science.

  • Turner, M. D. 2003. Methodological reflections on the use of remote sensing and geographic information science in human ecological research. Human Ecology 31.2 (June): 255–279.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1023984813957E-mail Citation »

    Focusing on the Sahel, this paper discusses the applications of remote sensing and GIS as applied to environmental science. The author provides a critique of such approaches and the need to integrate human, cultural, and political ecologies into such research frameworks.

  • Wright, D. J., S. L. Duncan, and D. Lach. 2009. Social power and GIS technology: A review and assessment of approaches for natural resource management. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 99.2: 252–274.

    DOI: 10.1080/00045600802686299E-mail Citation »

    An examination of the role of GIS in environmental decision making, using a case study approach. Focusing on forestry management in western Oregon, this case study demonstrates the link between science, decisions, and power. A thoughtful piece when considering implementation of GIS for contentious environmental issues.

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