This paper appears in

Marine and Coastal Geographical Information Systems
edited by D.J. Wright and D.J. Bartlett
pages 1-10, 2000.

Copyright © reserved by Dawn Wright and Taylor & Francis publishers.
May be freely distributed electronically in whole or in part, but please keep this notice attached and do not alter the text.


Down to the Sea in Ships:
The Emergence of Marine GIS

Dawn J. Wright

1.1 Introduction

In the mid-1960s Roger Tomlinson recognised that digital computers could be used quite effectively to map out and analyze the vast quantities of information being collected by the Canada Land Inventory. The resulting statistical and cost-benefit analyses were used to develop management plans for large rural areas throughout the whole of settled Canada. One of the conclusions of the initial effort was that computerisation was going to be the best alternative for developing these management plans, in spite of the primitive computers of that time and their high costs. Roger Tomlinson called this new kind of "computerisation" the "geographic information system" and the rest, as they say, is history. Since that time geography and GIS have enjoyed an especially close relationship, extending, as Johnston (1999) notes, "well beyond the commonality of titles." Geography has been the academic "home" of much of the continuing research, development and training in GIS, as well as a means of survival for the discipline when the pressures of academic justification or public sector funding have reared up (Johnston, 1999). This chapter gives a brief review of the development of marine GIS, highlighting a series of "firsts" in this application domain, due mainly to the efforts of geographers (or geomatics specialists in some of the Canadian terminology), along with, or in addition to, those of oceanographers. It should be noted that this review reflects the author’s own observations and value judgements; different views certainly may exist elsewhere. However, what seems clear, as is the case with the history of GIS in general (e.g., Coppock and Rhind, 1991), is that there were many initiatives concerned with different facets of marine GIS, usually occurring independently and often in ignorance of each other, and frequently originating because of the curiosity, interest, and sometimes the outright courage of certain individuals.

For the sake of discussion, the domain of marine, as opposed to coastal, GIS is here defined as the deep, open water and ice beyond human sight of the coast (i.e., the swash zone, bays, dunes, estuaries, coastal wetlands, and the like). Bartlett (1999) gives a review of the development of coastal GIS in the next chapter. The distinction is made because marine and coastal GIS, both as application domains and as user communities, have, until recent years, developed fairly independently of each other, just as traditional oceanography departments in North America have often grouped together biological, chemical, physical, and geological studies of the ocean as "oceanography science programs," while creating a separate category for coastal studies, particularly if the emphasis is on coastal resource management. It may be fair to say that marine applications of GIS have been more in the realm of basic science whereas coastal applications, due in part to the intensity of human activities, have encompassed both basic and applied science, as well as policy and management. A full review of research issues endemic to marine GIS (i.e., what sets a marine GIS apart from the traditional, land-based GIS), such as the multiple dimensionality and dynamism of marine data, the inherent fuzziness of boundaries, the great need for spatial data structures that vary their relative positions and values over time, etc. will not be mentioned here as they are already covered in full by Li and Saxena (1993), Lockwood and Li (1995) and Wright and Goodchild (1997).

1.2 Geographers Discover What Oceanographers Already Knew

As mentioned earlier, interest and developments in marine GIS have been due mainly to the efforts of geographers and oceanographers. The involvement of geographers in marine GIS has been especially interesting, since throughout most of the history of geography as an academic discipline the study of the oceans beyond the realm of the nearshore has escaped attention (Steinberg, in press; Wright, in press). Indeed, American geographers, have contributed little to marine research until recent decades, although the first textbook of modern marine science, written by Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury of the U.S. Navy in 1855, was entitled The Physical Geography of the Sea. It was the post World War II exploitation of offshore resources, as well as the environmental movements of the 1960s arising from coastal population and industrial growth, that directed some American geographers to the open water (West, 1989; Psuty et al., in press).

During the 1970s and 1980s, as the support for research into global Earth systems and the effects of human-induced environmental change steadily increased, geographers began to broaden their focus past traditional boundaries. Marine geography received a major boost in the 1990s with the advent and popularity of Earth System Science (ESS), an interdisciplinary initiative seeking to understand the entire Earth system (atmosphere, oceans, ice cover, biosphere, crust, and interior) on a global scale (Williamson, 1990; Nierenberg, 1992). Other recent factors increasing the exposure of marine geography, and ultimately marine GIS, include rising global environmental awareness and concerns, increased pollution and the endangerment of marine fish populations, a heightened understanding of the role of marine life in maintaining the global ecosystem, new opportunities for marine mineral extraction, new techniques for undertaking marine exploration, the 1994 activation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the designation of 1998 as the International Year of the Ocean (Psuty et al., in press).

1.3 A Series of Firsts

1.3.1 Government and Academia

One of the precursors to marine GIS was an automated mapping effort developed in the early 1960s by oceanographers of the U.S. National Ocean Survey (NOS). The NOS had at their disposal computer resources that were prohibitively expensive to others at the time, and pioneered the production of "figure fields" and matrices of depth values for the creation of hundreds of nautical charts (Coppock and Rhind, 1991).

The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the development of sophisticated technologies for ocean data collection, resulting in an explosion of data and information to usher in the 1990s. Realizing the potential of GIS for managing, interpreting, and visualizing these data, an American oceanographer, in collaboration with a software developer from Dynamic Graphics, Inc., published in 1990 one of the first articles on the potential of marine GIS (Manley and Tallet, 1990). The article, featured in the magazine of The Oceanography Society, focused not only on the data management and display functions that GIS was well known for, but was far-sighted in its discussion of truly 3-dimensional property modelling, volumetric visualizaton, and quantitative analysis in GIS, particularly for physical and chemical oceanographic data. Two years later Sea Technology magazine featured its first article on marine GIS, highlighting the use of the technology for search and recovery of lost objects on the seafloor (Caswell, 1992). At around the same time, oceanographers and geographers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Europe presented the first results of a variety of marine GIS applications, including: the modelling of tidal currents and winds in Canada (Keller et al., 1991); a digital marine atlas in the U.K. (Robinson, 1991); the monitoring of water quality in the New York Bight (Hansen et al., 1991); the first processing of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) data along the U.S. west coast (Langran and Kall, 1991); the monitoring of pollution outflow and diffusion in Scandinavia (Dimmestøl and Lucas, 1992); and the investigation of natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico (MacDonald et al., 1992).

Serendipitously, the early 1990s also witnessed, by way of the U.S. Global Change Program, the creation of the Ridge Interdisciplinary Global Experiments (RIDGE) program, a highly successful research initiative of the U.S. National Science Foundation. This was to lead indirectly to the first graduate student theses in marine GIS, as well as later pioneering efforts by the Vents Program of U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. RIDGE was launched in response to the growing realisation that knowledge of the global mid-ocean ridge (seafloor-spreading centers) was fundamental to the understanding of key processes in a multitude of disciplines: marine biology, geochemistry, physical oceanography, geophysics, and geology (National Research Council, 1988). Throughout the 1990s this has prompted several major co-ordinated experiments on the seafloor, involving a multiple instrument arrays for the study of geological, physical, chemical, and biological processes within and above the seafloor (Detrick and Humphris, 1994). The resulting data range from measurements of temperature and chemistry of hydrothermal vent fluids and plumes, to microtopography of underwater volcanoes, to magnitudes and depths of earthquakes beneath the seafloor, to the biodiversity of hydrothermal vent fauna (Psuty et al., in press). On the east coast of the U.S., one of the major data centers that supported the initial mapping efforts of RIDGE was the University of Rhode Island Ocean Mapping Development Center (OMDC). OMDC lent a great deal of support to the first known American graduate thesis in marine GIS (Hatcher, 1992), leading to a Master of Science degree in Ocean Engineering. The thesis described the development of a raster marine GIS, based on GRASS, for the collection of geological data from the Narragansett Bay, and the processing and mapping of these data both at sea and on shore. At the same time, on the west coast of the U.S., the first marine GIS study to be presented at the Association of American Geographers Annual meeting (Wright et al., 1992a), described the implementation of a vector GIS (Arc/INFO) for data collected from the first comprehensive, large-scale survey of the distribution of deepsea hydrothermal vents along the East Pacific Rise. Based on the success of this initial survey, as well as the discovery of an eruption at this site in 1991, RIDGE funded many subsequent research cruises to this region throughout the 1990s. The region has also gained quite a bit of notoriety in the news media. The results from the first implementations of GIS at the East Pacific Rise were incorporated later into the first known American doctoral dissertation focusing on marine GIS (Wright, 1994), which led to a joint degree in physical geography and marine geology.

1.3.2 The Commercial Sector Awakens

By the early 1990s land-based applications accounted for the lion’s share of the commercial market for GIS software, dictating the development pathways for much of the industry. The commercial sector catered to the most profitable domain- specific niches in the GIS market (e.g., public utilities, transportation, hydrology, forestry, location-allocation modelling, etc.). However, as more marine practitioners in academic circles were discovering the utility of GIS, they began to make their special application needs known to commercial vendors, encouraging them to increase the functionality of their products for this new market of users. Concurrently, commercial shipping, government and military practitioners were in need of better nautical charting capabilities for safer navigation.

As early as 1987, MRJ, Inc. (which became MRJ Technology Solutions and is now Veridian, Inc.) incorporated Arc/INFO into their marine analysis applications, and in the late 1980s to early 1990s marketed some of the first customised software solutions for these applications using the Arc/INFO, Genamap, and Erdas GIS packages. In 1993 they released the Marine Data Sampler, one of the first commercially available CD-ROM collections of global oceanographic images and data sets. These were coupled with ArcView to introduce GIS to the ocean professional, and to demonstrate the display and analysis powers of GIS when linked with available marine observations (MRJ, 1993).

In 1991, the first marine GIS posters to be presented at the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) User Conference (Carrigan et al., 1992; Wright et al., 1992b) were among the maps chosen by ESRI President Jack Dangermond for inclusion in the publication, Arc/INFO Maps, which annually highlights the multidisciplinarity of Arc/INFO users. This planted a seed for the oceanographic applications that ESRI developers would champion later on in the decade (e.g., ESRI, 1996/1997). At around the same time, Universal Systems, Ltd, in collaboration with the Canadian Hydrographic Service and the Ocean Mapping Group of the University of New Brunswick, set about developing and marketing one of the first commercial marine GIS packages in North America, called CARIS GIS, with the accompanying Hydrographic Information Processing System. Released in 1992-’93, these products were expressly designed for the processing, visualisation, and display of large quantities of bathymetric sounding data, as well as the production of high quality nautical charts. They were the precursors to the full suite of CARIS Marine Information System software now available. Intergraph joined the nautical charting market in 1993 with one of the first implementations of the Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems or ECDIS (Scott et al., 1993; Ward et al., 1999).

1.3.3 Into the Mainstream

High quality marine GIS abstracts, papers, and technical reports continued to appear in various conference proceedings (e.g., Bobbitt et al., 1993; Drutman and Rauenzahn, 1994; Déniel, 1994; Triñanes et al., 1994; Wright et al., 1994). These gave further exposure to marine applications of GIS, often educating the oceanographic community about the potential of the tool as well as the science behind it. Chief among these were the report of Hamre (1993), which addressed the important issue of the oceanographic user specifications needed for the development of a sound marine GIS, and that of Lucas et al. (1994) in addressing the equally important issue of spatial metadata management for oceanographic applications.

As Goodchild (1992) notes, however, it is the transition from publication in conference proceedings to publication in well-respected, peer- reviewed journals that may best establish the legitimacy of a speciality in the eyes of some. Li and Saxena (1993) published one of the first of such in Marine Geodesy, describing some of the important differences between terrestrial and marine applications of GIS, and presenting the results of an integrated system for the exploration and development of the EEZ around the Big Island of Hawaii. Mason et al. (1994) published the results of an extensive marine GIS effort in the International Journal of Geographical Information Systems (now the International Journal of Geographical Information Science). The study combines time-dependent satellite with in-situ oceanographic data for the interpretation of mesoscale (~20 km) ocean features and the prediction of climate change. In the following year, the first peer-reviewed effort connected to the RIDGE initiative appeared in the Journal of Geophysical Research (Wright et al., 1995). The main thrust of the paper is on geological interpretations at the crest of the East Pacific Rise, namely the abundance, width, and distribution of seafloor fissures in relation to the ages of lava flows and the distribution of hydrothermal vents. But there are also sections devoted to the processing, analysis, and mapping of these data using GIS. An extremely important effort, also appearing in 1995, was the first special issue of a peer-reviewed journal devoted entirely to marine GIS. This issue of Marine Geodesy, edited by Rongxing Li, included papers on a new conceptual data model for deepsea bathymetry (Li et al., 1995), ocean disposal and monitoring of environmental impacts in the Farallon Islands (Hall et al., 1995), detection of waste disposal sites on the seafloor (Chavez, Jr. and Karl, 1995), and a new spatial data structure for integrating marine GIS with spatial simulation (Gold and Condal, 1995). Two additional papers appeared in Marine Geodesy in 1997 (Goldfinger et al., 1997; Wright et al., 1997), which brings the narrative of this chapter up to the inception of Marine and Coastal Geographical Information Systems.

The chapters in this book that are devoted in whole or in part to what was defined earlier as the marine realm, illustrate the present "state-of- the-art" from a purely conceptual and institutional standpoint (Cahill et al., 1999; Gold, 1999; Li, 1999; Lucas, 1999; Sherin, 1999; Varma, 1999 ), as well as via applications for a wide range of locations throughout the world’s oceans (Figure 1.1). Happily for the growth of marine GIS, there are many more studies that could be mentioned, if only space allowed.

Figure 1.1 Locations of marine GIS study areas described in the chapters of this book: (1) Oregon, USA continental margin and Juan de Fuca Ridge (Goldfinger, 1999; Fox and Bobbitt, 1999; McAdoo, 1999); (2) California, USA continental margin (Hatcher and Maher, 1999; McAdoo, 1999; Su, 1999); (3) Hawaii (Li, 1999); (4) northern East Pacific Rise (Wright, 1999); (5) territorial seas of Central and South America (Palmer and Pruett, 1999); (6) southern East Pacific Rise (Wright, 1999); (7) Gulf of Mexico continental margin (McAdoo, 1999); (8) northeastern USA continental slope (McAdoo, 1999); (9) Flemish Cap, offshore Newfoundland, Canada (Sherin, 1999); (10) Kara Sea, offshore Siberia, Russia (Lucas, 1999); (11) marginal and enclosed basins of the Mediterranean (Barale, 1999; Palmer and Pruett, 1999); (12) South China Sea (Palmer and Pruett, 1999).

1.4 Conclusion

Suffice it to say that marine GIS has certainly "arrived" as a well-established application domain. The initial impetus for developing a marine speciality in GIS was the need to automate the production of nautical charts and to more efficiently manage the prodigious amounts of data that are now capable of being collected at sea. With the understanding that ocean research is very costly (~$10,000-$25,000 per day is typical), yet deemed extremely important by large funding agencies (due in large part to the recognised importance of ESS), marine GIS is primed to make even more important contributions to both ocean science and geographic information science. The speciality has triumphed by successfully adapting to a technology designed primarily for land-based applications and structured in a 2- dimensional framework that does not match the ocean environment. By explicitly recognising and attempting to overcome the limitations of GIS, marine geographers and oceanographers have succeeded in improving its fundamental toolbox, while extending the methodological framework for its applications. This is not to say that serious problems and challenges no longer exist. Bartlett and Wright (1999) in the Epilogue discuss these. But the overall result has been a progression from applications merely for collection and display of data to complex simulation, modelling, and the development of new oceanographic research methods and concepts. This, coupled with recent capabilities for "seeing" the ocean environment in unprecedented detail (e.g., Goldfinger, 1999; Wright, in press) hold tremendous promise for our ability to achieve an even better understanding of and level of protection for the marine environment.

1.5 References

Barale, V., 1999, Integrated geographical and environmental remotely-sensed data on marginal and enclosed basins: The Mediterranean case, in this volume, Chapter 13.

Bartlett, D. J., 1999, Working on the frontiers of science: Applying GIS to the coastal zone, in this volume, Chapter 2.

Bartlett, D. J. and Wright, D. J., 1999, Epilogue, in this volume, Chapter 23.

Bobbitt, A., Lau, T.-K. and Fox, C.G., 1993, Integrating multidisciplinary data sets from the Juan de Fuca Ridge using geographic information systems. EOS, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, 74, p. 88.

Cahill, B., Kennedy, T. and Ní Cheileachair, O., Managing marine and coastal data sources: A national oceanographic data centre perspective on GIS, in this volume, Chapter 19.

Carrigan, B., Holland, B., Cox, A., Miller, D. and Landsman, E., 1992, Interlocking habitats of Monterey Bay. In ARC/INFO Maps 1991, edited by Dangermond, J. (Redlands, California: Environmental Systems Research Institute), p. 47.

Caswell, D.A., 1992, GIS: The "big picture" in underwater search operations. Sea Technology, 33, pp. 40-47.

Chavez, P.S., Jr. and Karl, H.A., 1995, Detection of barrels and waste disposal sites on the seafloor using spatial variability analysis on sidescan sonar and bathymetry images. Marine Geodesy, 18, pp. 197-211.

Coppock, J.T. and Rhind, D.W., 1991, The history of GIS. In Geographical Information Systems: Principles and Applications, 1, edited by Maguire, D.J., Goodchild, M.F. and Rhind, D.W. (New York: John Wiley and Sons), pp. 21-43.

Déniel, J.-L., 1994, Electronic navigational chart data. In Oceans 94 (Brest, France: IEEE), pp. 541-544.

Detrick, R.S. and Humphris, S.E., 1994, Exploration of global oceanic ridge system unfolds. EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, 75, pp. 325-326.

Dimmestøl, T. and Lucas, A., 1992, Integrating GIS with ocean models to simulate and visualize spills. In 4th Scandinavian Research Conference on GIS (Helsinki, Finland), pp. 1-17.

Drutman, C. and Rauenzahn, K.A., 1994, Marine geophysics modeling with geographic information systems. In Oceans 94 (Brest, France: IEEE), pp. 528-531.

Environmental Systems Research Institute, 1996/1997, Making waves in oceanographic research and development. ArcNews, 18, p. 31.

Fox, C. G. and Bobbitt, A. M., 1999, NOAA Vents Program marine GIS: Integration, analysis and distribution of multidisciplinary oceanographic data, in this volume, Chapter 12.

Gold, C.M. and Condal, A.R., 1995, A spatial data structure integrating GIS and simulation in a marine environment. Marine Geodesy, 18, pp. 213-228.

Gold, C.M., 1999, An algorithmic approach to marine GIS, in this volume, Chapter 4.

Goldfinger, C., 1999, Active tectonics: Data acquisition and analysis with marine GIS, in this volume, Chapter 18.

Goldfinger, C., McNeill, L., Kulm, L. and Yeats, R., 1997, Case study of GIS data integration and visualization in marine tectonics: The Cascadia subduction zone. Marine Geodesy, 20, pp. 267-289.

Goodchild, M.F., 1992, Geographical information science. International Journal of Geographical Information Systems, 6, pp. 31- 45.

Hall, R.K., Ota, A.Y. and Hashimoto, J.Y., 1995, Geographical information systems (GIS) to manage oceanographic data for site designation and site monitoring. Marine Geodesy, 18, pp. 161- 171.

Hamre, T., 1993, User requirement specification for a marine information system, Technical Report 74 (Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center).

Hansen, W., Goldsmith, V., Clarke, K. and Bokuniewicz, H., 1991, Development of a hierarchical, variable scale marine geographic information system to monitor water quality in the New York Bight. In GIS/LIS ’91 Proceedings (Atlanta, Georgia: ACSM-ASPRS- URISA-AM/FM), pp. 730-739.

Hatcher, G. 1992, A Geographic Information System as a Data Management Tool for Seafloor Mapping (Master’s Thesis, University of Rhode Island, Narragansett, Rhode Island).

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Keller, C.P., Gowan, R.F. and Dolling, A., 1991, Marine spatio-temporal GIS. In The Canadian Conference on GIS ’91 Proceedings (Ottawa), pp. 345-358.

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Li, R., 1999, Data models for marine and coastal geographic information systems, in this volume, Chapter 3.

Li, R. and Saxena, N.K., 1993, Development of an integrated marine geographic information system. Marine Geodesy, 16, pp. 293-307.

Li, R., Qian, L. and Blais, J.A.R., 1995, A hypergraph-based conceptual model for bathymetric and related data management. Marine Geodesy, 18, pp. 173-182.

Lockwood, M., and R. Li. 1995, Marine geographic information systems: What sets them apart? Marine Geodesy , 18, pp. 157-159.

Lucas, A., 1999, Representation of variability in marine environmental data, in this volume, Chapter 5.

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MacDonald, I.R., Best, S.E. and Lee, C.S., 1992, Biogeochemical processes at natural oil seeps in the Gulf of Mexico: Field-trials of a small-area benthic imaging system (SABIS). In First Thematic Conference on Remote Sensing for Marine and Coastal Environments (New Orleans, Louisiana), pp. 1-7.

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Wright, D.J., Haymon, R.M. and Fornari, D.J., 1995, Crustal fissuring and its relationship to magmatic and hydrothermal processes on the East Pacific Rise crest (9°12’-54’N). Journal of Geophysical Research, 100, pp. 6097- 6120.