ESIG Alert #5, July 2003


In early 2001, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) recognized a need to explore and re-evaluate the capabilities of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as an integrating tool for scientific research and applications at NCAR, as well as in the geosciences community at large. The GIS Initiative formed at NCAR aims to promote and support the use of GIS as both an analysis and an infrastructure tool in atmospheric research, as well as address broader issues of spatial data management, interoperability, and geoinformatics within the geosciences.

What is GIS?

GIS is basically an information system designed to interact with spatially referenced data in order to perform spatial analysis and help decision makers solve complex environmental, planning and management problems. GIS consists of hardware, software, and procedures designed to support the capture, management, manipulation, analysis, modeling, and display of spatial data. GIS allows information to be shared by providing a common geographic "language" to connect people worldwide, and provides almost limitless uses to decision makers. GIS can use information from many different sources and link information about, for example, rainfall to aerial photographs in order to analyze precipitation patterns in a given area. As another example, ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) in China uses GIS to keep Hong Kong health authorities abreast of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) event in that area.

The illustration to the right shows how GIS software allows different types of data for a geographic region to be layered over the area in order to produce new "smart" interactive information (from

There is a common tendency to define GIS based on existing software (GIS as a tool). However, the potential capabilities of GIS go far beyond current software and the ability to produce maps. GIS can also be tied to a theoretical discussion of the manner in which meteorologists represent atmospheric space (GIS as a science), which can expand the scope of scientific research, develop collaborations across disciplines, and improve scientific communication.

First Steps at NCAR

Assessment and evaluation of GIS technology for atmospheric research was the first step of the NCAR GIS Initiative. In August 2002, the Initiative conducted the first of several community workshops (GIS in Weather, Climate and Impacts) to explore the role of GIS in the atmospheric sciences. More than 70 workshop participants from academia, government, and the private sector discussed potential research programs at NCAR that can be addressed or improved with GIS. For example, several discussions centered on the importance of GIS in research on surface- atmosphere interactions, such as research in hydrometeorology, fire weather research, and convection research. (Well-defined surface characteristics can improve understanding of convective initiation and evolution and subsequent severe weather.) It was noted at the workshop that GIS also has the ability to potentially aid in gaining a better understanding of ocean-atmosphere interactions. For example, GIS might be used to analyze various model parameters with satellite data and other observations over oceans.

Another topic that generated great interest at the workshop is the use of GIS in climate assessment research. Using GIS to bring land use, land-use change information, and population data into climate models could significantly improve assessment of societal impacts of climate change and adaptation. GIS also aids in bringing together meteorological research and societal impacts research (e.g., GIS can be used to calculate the impacts of severe weather on humans from scientific models). Climate research questions discussed at the workshop included quantitative assessment of hazard risk, impacts, and response to hazards (e.g., place-based vulnerability studies, dispersal of pollutants, impacts assessments), as well as providing an opportunity to couple weather forecasts to a variety of activities.

Participants at the workshop developed a coherent set of recommendations, including the need to:

  • address effective communication and collaboration among researchers, practitioners, and GIS developers;
  • train atmospheric scientists in GIS technology;
  • create an organization-wide GIS infrastructure with full-time staff and resources to support interoperability and GIS-based projects; and
  • address the problem of GIS and atmospheric data integration from the standpoint of the atmospheric information system or data model.

One Year Later

Following the workshop recommendations, the Principal Investigators of the GIS Initiative, Olga Wilhelmi (ESIG) and Terri Betancourt (RAP), have begun to develop a broader GIS program. The four program elements are focused on

  • Education, Training, and User Support
  • Research Enabled by GIS
  • Data and Web Services
  • Research in GIS Technology

Taking into account both benefits and limitations, two concurrent approaches are currently being integrated into NCAR's GIS infrastructure. These include 1) non-commercial OpenGIS technologies and 2) commercial suites of GIS software developed by the Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc. (ESRI). To promote deeper understanding of existing technologies and to advance GIS with respect to atmospheric science, in 2003 the NCAR GIS Initiative formed partnerships with both ESRI and the OpenGIS Consortium (OGC).

An atmospheric Special Interest Group (SIG) of ESRI users was recently formed at the International ESRI User Conference. The GIS Initiative will host a website for communication among SIG members and will work with ESRI to coordinate development of the atmospheric data model. Similar to data models developed for hydrological and oceanographic communities, this data model will provide a structure for seamless integration of atmospheric data in GIS.

As a result of the partnership with OGC, NCAR is participating in the OpenGIS Consortium conformance and Interoperability Test and Evaluation (CITE) project. Validating conformance to an OpenGIS specifications means verifying that software products have correctly implemented OpenGIS standards. This step will bring the technology community closer together.

Jennifer Boehnert was recently hired as NCAR's GIS Coordinator. She comes to NCAR from ESRI, where she had worked as an instructor and consultant. She is an expert in ESRI's suite of GIS software and will help coordinate data management, research, and educational activities of the GIS Initiative with Wilhelmi and Betancourt. A lecture series was initiated in 2003 to encourage the use of GIS at NCAR and UCAR through training and education. The organization-wide ESRI site license has provided availability of ESRI software, research tools, and training via the ESRI's "Virtual Campus" to all NCAR and UCAR staff.

The NCAR GIS Initiative is actively involved in building a community of researchers, engineers, GIS developers, and GIS users within NCAR as well as externally. A comprehensive website ( of the GIS Initiative provides information about ongoing research activities, GIS services, training and support, and a mailing list for those interested in integration of GIS and atmospheric sciences.

Future Directions for the Initiative

GIS provides a vast set of concepts, standards, and tools to explore spatial patterns in meteorological data, climate variability and change, as well as climate assessments and modeling. GIS can also help to communicate atmospheric data to the public and to educate people at many levels to the value of weather information in their daily lives. However, many weather and climate data formats are not compatible with existing GIS formats and hence are not readily available to GIS users, decisionmakers, and policy-makers. The GIS Initiative aims to address the issue of data formats so that NCAR scientists can bring societal and environmental data into their research and then to share data and the results (e.g., climate model outputs) in a GIS format with users via the Internet.

The work on implementation of OpenGIS and the development of the atmospheric data model continues, as well as expanding the GIS community in the atmospheric sciences. A second biannual workshop sponsored by the GIS Initiative will be held at NCAR in the summer of 2004. All current and future developments will be posted on the NCAR GIS website at to inform interested parties.

For more information, contact Jennifer Boehnert at, Olga Wilhelmi at, or Terri Betancourt at