Using WebGIS to Teach Climate Resilience

2 weeks ago
Esri Contributor
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Note: Although these articles take one author name by default, my colleague @JosephKerski co-authored this one. Thanks Joseph!

Climate change and its effects increasingly are part of the general public discourse and is being taught at all levels of education.  Related effects are adaptation and resilience, or the capacity of a system to cope with a hazardous event or disturbance. But to understand and teach them in a rigorous way involves holistic thinking and connecting themes that are dynamic and complex.   You probably already know that GIS is ideal for connecting themes--for example, how drought affects the land (soil moisture, land cover) and its people (those directly and indirectly dependent upon the agricultural economy)-- using the common space (spatial coincidence) as a key. Where does drought affect agriculture and who is affected in that same space? Can we predict or at least hazard a solid guess where it will happen next?

Esri has long believed that GIS plays a key role in climate education but given the mounting evidence of climate change-related impacts on supply chain, health, natural hazards, and other aspects of society,  Esri has been creating focused resources to empower policymakers, community groups, researchers, and educators.   One of Esri’s goals is to provide resources for educators and students at all levels and across the world so that they will be able to comprehend and communicate the patterns and implications of climate change and related sustainability.  This is coupled with huge improvements in online GIS and in access to open spatial data. 



Like toy boats on a smaller and smaller bathtub... (Photo: Joseph Kerski)




Esri’s resources are at the intersection of GIS, Education, and Climate; all within the context of Sustainability. 


Climate action requires critical thinking. We believe, and it is supported by the research, that spatial thinking, critical thinking, and problem-based learning are fostered by the use of GIS.  When working with ArcGIS, students use the same tools that climate researchers in nonprofit, government, and private industry are using every day on the job, such as this example from the European Commission.  Moreover, students are active and action-oriented learners when they use GIS, using a wide variety of data in different formats and at different scale, field tools to collect data, making choices on symbolizing, classifying, and projecting information, employing spatial analytical tools for deeper understanding of the relationships among variables, and deciding how to communicate their findings by sharing web maps and creating ArcGIS Instant Apps, ArcGIS dashboards, and StoryMaps.

What are we planning to teach and to whom?

The ArcGIS system is vast and includes not only traditional GIS software but also ready-made apps (and app development tools) to allow you to communicate scientific information.  There are opportunities for all levels of application of GIS to climate resilience.

Three of these levels are:

  1. communicating examples of climate resilience, perhaps by viewing or creating StoryMaps,  
  2. creating and using web apps to study specific climate related topics, or
  3. using GIS tools for calculating climate resilience, for example a heat risk index for a particular city.

The single best place to get started on any of these three levels, is the new GIS for Climate Resilience curriculum.  There you will find learning resources including standalone lessons and sequenced and scaffolded learning pathways.  Subtopics or profiles of possible users of these resources include community action, urban and community planning, and natural resource management.  These tutorial lessons can be taught as-is or can be used as examples to be emulated and localized.  While customization is possible, as is shown below, the landing page contains enough resources for teaching climate resilience with GIS in a few class periods, for an entire semester, and also across multi-year programs.  Furthermore, the curriculum resources are aligned with the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administrations’s 5 steps to resilience, which we believe can be applied to any location around the globe. These include Exploring Hazards, Accessing Vulnerability and Risk, Investigating Options, Prioritizing and Planning, and Taking Action.


Part of the Climate GIS Education ArcGIS Hub Landing Page.


Within the curriculum, which was built using ArcGIS Hub, you will find a collection of StoryMaps, such as this one on coastal flooding, to include as classroom exercises, or you may choose to have students create and publish their own StoryMaps to learn the fine art of scientific dissemination. Think about how you might build a whole class discussion around a StoryMap: where are the data, what story is being told, how to integrate live maps into the story.

The curriculum is also aligned with the  climate mapping for resilience and adaptation (CMRA, pronounced “camera”) web portal, which contains a collection of essays, data and online tools to explore in class.   The maps on this US Government resource are powered by Esri’s online GIS tools and open data portals.

Another set of resources for an initiation to using GIS in climate and sustainability is this Climate ArcGIS Hub.  Analysis of urban heat using kriging, interpolating 3D oxygen measurements in the ocean, and using machine learning to examine a simulated global circulation model are just a few of the many activities here.

Living Atlas Apps

A secondary level of introducing the “whys of where” in climate and sustainability instruction is to use the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World apps.  Using web GIS through these apps allows us not only to study snapshots of our geography at present but also to look back in time and forward for modeling and planning. The Drought Aware app communicates in a compelling way where drought is occurring (or occurred, back as far as 20 years ago) and who, which populations --people and the agricultural economy—are affected. We can use GIS to ask and answer questions regarding where we live, farm, and create economic opportunity—reflect on some of the millions of dollars of value in crops and livestock, for example, in some counties in southwest Kansas, and how the economy could be affected by climate change there and elsewhere if agricultural activity moves and migrates as does the weather and do the people.   

The Living Atlas Water Balance app allows students to compare 6 water-related variables such as precipitation and evapotranspiration and also how it has changed over time in specific areas of the world. Ask questions such as: Is the precipitation regime in the Amazon a summer and winter regime or a wet season and dry season?  Why?  What is the longest stretch of time you can find in the Sahara when no precipitation fell?  In how many months did zero precipitation fall, and in what country did it occur?  What was the cause of the large spikes in precipitation in southeast Texas USA during the months of August and September in many of the years that you can examine?   

Study the changes via graphs and interactive maps in Arctic and Antarctic sea ice via the sea ice aware app.  In which years was the sea ice above the median? Below the median?  Zoom into specific locations and examine the glacial extent via the imagery and median ice extent.  Which is the month of annual maximum ice in the Arctic vs the Antarctic?

Use the ArcGIS Wayback imagery to create swipe maps and short video animations showing change over space and time via high-resolution imagery of the entire planet.   How much is the coastline eroding west of Eastbourne, England?   What is the areal extent of Lake Mead USA in 2022 vs in 2014?  How many miles or kilometers did urban sprawl extend northward in Dallas Texas USA or in Rio de Janeiro over those 8 years?  How much did the Pedersen Glacier in Alaska retreat over that time period?  How many center pivot irrigation plots appeared in an area you are examining in central Saudi Arabia?  What changes have occurred on your campus and in the surrounding neighborhood, and why? 

Use the Sentinel-2 Explorer to investigate land cover changes across space and time, using 10 meter resolution data.  How have built up areas, rangeland, and cropland changed in your region over the past few years? Why? 

Use the Ecological Marine Unit explorer to examine how ocean temperature and chemistry changes across the world’s oceans at 10 kilometer spacing.  Which coast of the continental USA is warmer?  How does dissolved oxygen change across the length and depth of the Marianas Trench, and why?  How does salinity change from the continental shelf to deeper oceanic locations?  What is the relationship between nitrates, phosphates, and silicates across selected oceans, and why?  How have selected variables changed from 2013 to 2018, why did they change, and why should these changes concern us?   



The Sea Ice Aware app, one of the apps from the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World.


Using ArcGIS StoryMaps for Content

Another body of content is the ArcGIS StoryMaps gallery.  Coastal flooding, the Age of the Anthropocene, and Farming for the Future are just three of the many compelling and information-rich multimedia StoryMaps that are in the collection, ready for your use.  Consider each of these an interactive e-book of content.  This StoryMap is anchored on why “where” matters in climate and resiliency research with a focus on education.

Where Can I Find the Data?

We need reliable data to build maps that enable teaching and learning about climate.  ArcGIS Online,   ArcGIS Hub sites and other data portals, and the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World are excellent starting points for data.  A good starting point for Living Atlas data is to search on climate, as shown here.  Or, under “environment”, select from such topics as land cover, fresh water, habitat, and species.  Many relevant layers are connected to live data feeds, on storms, air quality, and more; for example, in this list.  Or, start with the ArcGIS Climate Hub for data and maps.  Climate encompasses many themes, and no program or curriculum can teach them all.  Use this ArcGIS Hub site to aid in focusing on themes that are most relevant to your educational goals and institution, such as climate justice, and others, here.

Digging Deeper

You’ll see that by using the above web-based GIS tools, quite a few climate-related topics are within your reach. After that, the third level would be to teach about climate and sustainability is to investigate some of the workflows that climate scientists use, within a more traditional GIS environment.  One such resource and teaching tool is this template that contains an ArcGIS Pro project, a suitable basemap, a geoprocessing model, and NetCDF files in the World Climate Data Multimodel Ensemble. This workflow is part of this larger curricular unit.  In this lesson, you will map historical and projected climate data in ArcGIS Pro. You'll learn about climate at both local and global levels, as well as how climate might change in the future.  You will gain understanding of major climate concepts and familiarity with real climate data.  To learn more about multidimensional climate models, read our colleague Abigail Fitzgibbon’s essay.



Part of the Exploring Future Climate Projections Unit and Template.


Advantages of the ArcGIS Platform

The resources we describe here make focused use of a significant part of the ArcGIS platform—field tools, mapping and visualization tools, communication tools, data portal tools, and spatial analysis tools.  The advantages of ArcGIS are several.  The tools are integrated as part of a platform:  Field data can be collected into a feature layer with Survey123, QuickCapture, or ArcGIS Field Maps.  A set of analysis results from ArcGIS Pro can be shared as a layer or map in ArcGIS Online. A dashboard or StoryMap can be created from an ArcGIS Online map.  Dozens more examples showing the advantage of this integrated platform exist, and many if the large environmental and climate agencies are exploiting this power on a daily basis. 

Another advantage is that the platform offers educators the ability to use real data about real issues through open data portals and ArcGIS Hub sites that span multiple scales and places.  Many of these accessible data sets are in real-time or near-real time, including stream gauges, weather, wildfire perimeters, and many more.   Another advantage of ArcGIS is that it offers tools that are perfect for an introductory level university course, or for a primary or secondary school, as well as more advanced tools. 



Our final words of advice in the use of GIS for teaching about climate and sustainability is to go beyond thinking about GIS as “just a mapping tool.” GIS does much more than map your data! Try to look for before/after trends, patterns, and to visualize and analyze change.  GIS is fundamental to all science.--from archaeology to zoology and everything in between.  Modern GIS is a platform, essential to all parts of scientific inquiry—from framing problems to gathering field data to analysis to communication. 

We look forward to hearing your reactions, and how you use these or other resources to teach about climate and sustainability using GIS.

--Mike and Joseph

About the Author
I am an education manager at Esri and I work mostly on projects outside of North America, supporting 80-plus Esri offices and more than 10000 universities. PhD from (SUNY) University at Buffalo. I am based in Spain and am part-time professor of GIS at Universitat Jaume I in Castellón. twitter: @0mgould