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First-of-its-Kind Map to Aid Policymakers on Climate Change

Mapping company Esri partners with the U.S. Geological Survey for a global mapping project.

It started -- as a good story should -- at an Addis Abba hotel. Roger Sayre, the Senior Scientist for Ecosystems at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), had finished presenting a new map at the 2013 African GIS conference when he ran into Esri CEO Jack Dangermond.

The two started talking, and Sayre mentioned that he had been tasked with developing a high-quality global map that would detail about 4,000 ecosystems and the impacts climate change may have on them.

An ambitious project that could provide policymakers all over the world with the data needed to make important decisions, Sayre says Dangermond embraced the idea immediately.

"I do recall [Dangermond] saying, 'Not that many people are thinking this way,'" Sayre said.

A little more than a year later, the USGS and Esri have released the most "data-driven" global map ever created, according to Sayre.

He describes the map as "the culmination of my life's work ... to date."

Getting the Big Picture

Using satellite technology, the map features shots of the entire globe at 250 meters resolution. To scientists working on one particular ecosystem -- like the Congo or the Amazon -- 250 meters may actually sound coarse, Sayre said. But when compared to other global maps, 250 meters is much better than the standard one kilometer resolution offered. This new map allows researchers and policymakers to examine data in four times the detail compared to those maps.

The map also captures all terrestrial masses, and that data can be accessed by every policymaker or interested party in the world, regardless of political party or governmental structure.

"These [ecological] impacts don't respect national boarders," Sayre said. "We need to understand our ecosystems and we need to understand the big picture."

Understanding that larger connectivity is why the map utilizes several data sets, according to Dawn Wright, Esri's chief scientist. The map will monitor and record data detailing the bio-climate, precipitation, global land cover and topological data to monitor things like erosion.

The map data will be stored on cloud services hosted by Amazon, with new information being updated after it's gathered.

Because of climate change, Wright says that "people can see things changing in their communities. This map will help monitor that, and be available to anyone in the world so decisions can be made."

Sayre added that this includes economic decisions.

"Another big implication is the economic and social value of ecosystems," he said. "Our overall goal in this is to help preserve ecosystems."

Ecosystem Function as an Advanced Science

While there is almost uniform consensus among scientists that global climate change is occurring, there are still many policymakers in opposition to those findings. Wright says this map should help policymakers who are skeptical of climate change to understand the importance of planning for it.

"Regardless of the cause of the change, we've got to be ready," Wright said. "It's very difficult for policymakers to make decisions on natural resources if they can't see the change."

Sayre also believes this data will help policymakers, while at the same time propelling the study of ecosystem function to an advanced science.

"There's a lot we still don't know about how [ecosystems are connected], but this map will help," he said.

That's quite the accomplishment considering the project began as a side conversation in an Ethiopian hotel lobby in 2013. And while Sayre says the project is the culmination of his life's work, he says he's working with Esri to create similar maps of the world's oceans and freshwater bodies.

"I'm not finished," Sayre said.