Quarterdeck Volume 4, Number 3, Winter 1996
Geographic Information Systems in action
John W. Pohlman and James M. Naismith
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are powerful, computer-based systems that manipulate and analyze geographically referenced information stored in a database too large for manual assessment. Their utility is especially pronounced in places like Azerbaijan where the size and complexity of the present condition makes it difficult to determine what actions to take toward developing a sustainable economy. For example, concentrating solely on environmental remediation without concomitantly refurbishing the infrastructure to prevent additional pollution would be a waste of resources. A solid plan must be developed that considers infrastructure, the environment, the economy and the immediate needs of the Azeri people. GIS provides the information-synthesizing capability to bring this program to fruition.
Last summer, graduate students John Pohlman from the Department of Oceanography and Jim Naismith from the Department of Civil Engineering traveled to the Apsheron Peninsula and worked with Namik Zeynalov of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences to develop a pilot GIS database and test the feasibility of using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology in that part of the world. Using the GPS satellite constellation, we created a multimedia database with decimeter-level accuracy that maps 54,000 meters of coastline, more than 200 kilometers of roads, and includes digitized photographs that visually display the condition of the environment, the infrastructure, and the people of Azerbaijan.
To begin we established four permanent control points across the peninsula. They serve as anchors for our network of survey points and will allow other scientists to reference their research to the same system. Our choice of markers was often quite imaginative. For instance, we inscribed an "X" at the base of Zeynalov's chimney to mark one point and selected a 30-millimeter bolt in the foundation of an oil derrick for another. In other places we found and used some existing geodetic markers with the hope that in the future our anchors can be used in conjunction with the local network.
The focus of our project was a GPS survey of 54 kilometers of coast which constitutes an accurate "snapshot" of the everchanging shoreline. Since 1978, the sea level of the Caspian has risen more than two meters. Consequently, untold acreage of invaluable real estate and critical habitat for wildlife has been lost. Due to the 10-centimeter horizontal resolution of our survey, we can return within the next few years to access how rapidly the coastal margins are disappearing into the sea and help the Azeris develop contingency plans for protecting vulnerable industrial, residential and wildlife areas.
During our survey we encountered fascinating ecosystems ranging from lush marshland to dry denuded deserts. All of our observations are documented with photographs that are included in the GIS database. In our future investigations, these records will be used to study the physical evolution of the coastline.
One of our most interesting ecological observations was of the dice snake (Natrix tessellata). In areas free from human habitation, we often found more than 50 snakes per 100 meters of coast. Considering that at the time we did not know if the snakes were venomous, our observations were incredibly keen. Apparently the non-venomous dice snake either has no natural predators or the predators have been removed. It is possible that a toxic chemical like DDT produced nearby in Sumgait eliminated predatory birds from the Caspian food chain leading to an explosion in the population of dice snakes.
Surveying the coast required driving the coastal and interior highways and roads. We used that opportunity to gather data along approximately 200 kilometers of roads and create a road map accurate within one to five meters. The condition of the roads varied widely, from new pavement to sections of impassable dirt and sand, but in general they were dilapidated and in dire need of repair. Our convoy of three Russian Ladas and an Opel received brutal treatment as we bounced around the peninsula. Fortunately for us, our posse of drivers-three of whom were professors on summer leave-was well trained in negotiating the rough terrain.
During our survey, we located and documented wastewater treatment facilities and solid waste facilities that were either inoperable or so inefficient that they basically served as corridors for the direct discharge of sewage into the Caspian. Other sources of pollution we identified were ponds of oil in well fields or around pump stations. Many of these "oil ponds" were near the shore and if they are not pouring into the Caspian already they will soon as the sea encroaches. By photographically documenting the conditions of these facilities, we hope to bring attention to the infrastructure crisis in Azerbaijan.
Despite the peculiarites of working in a foreign country where we understood neither the language nor the culture, we gathered more data than we expected. Without question we owe our success to our drivers who proved to be a most valuable resource. All of the Azeri people were very helpful and incredibly kind, especially when we were trying to find a particular beach, were lost, or in many cases both.
The GIS database we have started is expandable and suitable for processing additional data generated by the TAMERCS program. Our survey data and photographs will be used in investigations of the impact of industrial activities, remediation efforts, and the rising Caspian Sea.
Scientists and policy makers must agree on what steps need to be taken to address the problems in this critical, oil-rich region of the world. We have shown that using GIS is a practical approach and look forward to expanding the scope of TAMERCS to help the Azeris realize the potential of their people and their country. We hope for an opportunity to return to Azerbaijan and continue cooperative work with the scientists there.
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Last updated January 31, 1997