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Weather and Society Watch
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Article #1

Using Geospatial Visualization to Facilitate Weather and Watch Communication
by Greg Dobson*

In today's modern world, massive weather and hydro data collections exist within many federal, regional, and state agencies. This data is used daily for critical decision making across many sectors and at many different levels of scale. However, much of this data is not easily accessed, nor in formats that are clearly interpreted by the non-scientific community (e.g. local and regional decision makers, the general public). Decision makers require more than just raw data to make accurately informed decisions; they need complete integrated data solutions. By integrating trusted sources of weather and hydro information with other geographic datasets (e.g. economic, environmental, cadastral, infrastructure, terrestrial), Geospatial Visualization tools can be created to enhance and facilitate science and risk communication. The use of Geospatial Visualization techniques is well-suited to consider diversity of stakeholder values, trusted sources of information, data uncertainty, geographic scale, and for displaying a range of predicted outcomes through scenario planning, all leading to decisions based on a combination of factors and not single drivers.

To help address this issue, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Asheville's (UNCA) National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC) and the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) at UNC Asheville Engagement Center have been collaborating with many organizations, including the National Climatic Data Center, the National Weather Service, the U.S. Forest Service, state and regional climate centers, and other local groups to develop a process for converting weather, hydro, climate, and other data into useful information through effective Geospatial Visualization. By working with local and regional decision makers including city and county planners, emergency and first responders, council members, and others, NEMAC seeks to facilitate decision making processes between this non-scientific community, weather forecasters, hydrologists, and climate scientists concerning topics such as floodplain management, weather-related hazard mitigation, climate change, future build-out scenarios, societal impacts, and economic development.

To aid in this effort, NEMAC has created a four-step process to guide this transfer of data into useful knowledge. The process includes 1) integration of data and information, 2) creating visualizations, 3) telling the story, and 4) group decision making. The focus is to ingest weather and hydro data from multiple sources and integrate it with a variety of other datasets. Data integration occurs at county and regional scales in order to facilitate local decision making among the aforementioned groups. Specific tools created to help guide this transfer of knowledge and better interpret weather and hydro data have included the use of geographic information systems (GIS), web-based interactive technologies, and other Geospatial Visualization techniques. In addition, these Geospatial Visualization techniques have also been used to create integrated data products, such as 2D and 3D posters, movie animations, and gaming engines, all of which can simulate virtual environments. These integrated data products can be displayed on a variety of high-tech and interactive platforms, including large-format touch screens, an oversized Visualization Wall, and an immersive GeoDome.

As previously mentioned, the non-scientific community, which can include many local and regional decision makers, often has a difficult time interpreting 2D maps and ascertaining much useful information from them. However, by presenting the same information using alternative Geospatial Visualization techniques, including the use of 3D data displays, this same information can become much more meaningful and useful to the decision makers who rely on such data to make important decisions about our communities and beyond. It is one thing to show floodplain maps and other associated tabular information, but by providing this same information in a 3D perspective, key elements such as the depth of water over roadways and on buildings, can be realistically and virtually displayed in such a manner that any decision maker or member of the general public can quickly garner much needed knowledge.

Much of NEMAC and RENCI at UNCA's applied research has been focused on a major flood event in the mountains of western North Carolina and how that event specifically affected the local Swannanoa River watershed. In September 2004, remnants of two hurricane systems, occurring less than two weeks apart, produced torrential and record rainfall, which led to devastating flood events along the main river channel. Problems with the first system were further compounded by an unexpected and emergency release of water from a large reservoir, which greatly contributed to the local flooding. Societal impacts were severe from both systems, destroying many roads, bridges, houses, and businesses, and causing 200 million in damages (NCDC 2004). Part of the issue was a lack of communication and knowledge concerning the disconnect between what was occurring in the city of Asheville, N.C., at an elevation of 2200ft, and the headwaters of the watershed adjacent to the eastern continental divide, at elevations reaching 6000ft. These two locations, while only located 15 miles apart, experienced a 15 inch rainfall differential, with 5 inches occurring in Asheville , and 20 inches occurring in the upper watershed. Issues such as orographic enhancement and mountain watershed hydrology were not fully taken into account, nor clearly understood by local decision makers.

As a result of the flood events, a Flood Damage Reduction Task Force (FDRTF) was created at the request of the mayor of Asheville . The FDRTF consisted of a mix of people from the local region representing a broad range of expertise, and included city and county planners/council members, engineers, university researchers, business leaders, and local non-profit groups. This eclectic group sought to provide an assessment and make recommendations on how to lessen the damage from future flood events in the Swannanoa River watershed. However, it became immediately clear that they needed access to varied datasets, in non-traditional formats, in order to make better informed decisions, as many individuals in this group did not have a scientific background. NEMAC was able to listen and collaborate with the FDRTF and help address their needs by providing many different forms of Geospatial Visualization tools and technologies. Much of this was accomplished through rapid prototyping, where needs were heard, and tools and products were designed and created and then provided back to the group for use and feedback. Though informal, this proved to be an excellent approach for quickly creating a suite of integrated data products through Geospatial Visualization that were invaluable to the FDRTF and the conclusions that were eventually reached.

Some of the Geospatial Visualization tools that were created included detailed 3D panoramas of the watershed from multiple vantage points, online GIS viewers for remote access to basic geographic data, floodplain and flood model datasets displayed on highly detailed terrain data, 3D building models adjacent to the river and beyond overlaid with flood information, 3D movie animations highlighting virtual “fly-through” tours, and displays of proposed mitigation plans and what affects they might have on the local hydrology. Technologies such as the Viz Wall housed at the RENCI at UNC Asheville Engagement Center were critical in facilitating group discussions on the proper uses of these Geospatial Visualization products. With the Viz Wall, all of these products could be displayed on its 16x8 foot screen simultaneously, allowing the decision makers to see all of the data before them at once. These tools and products were also imported into a GeoDome, which provides a 180 degree immersive and virtual environment. All of this work eventually led to the creation of “Water in Western North Carolina”, a 5 minute, GIS-based, education and outreach movie that highlights flooding and impervious surface concepts in mountain watersheds. In addition, a complete Flood Tour booklet was created to guide decision makers and the general public on a tour of the watershed, while highlighting important points and locations of flooding, the floods of 2004, and local hydrology. Current initiatives include additional education and outreach efforts through community meetings and presentations, websites, and a large display on flooding in the new Swannanoa Valley Museum.

While the focus of this Center's work on Geospatial Visualization has been applied to flooding, specifically in the Swannanoa River Watershed, these techniques lend themselves well to be transferred to many other environments and for many other issues. For instance, RENCI at UNC Asheville has worked with a local county Emergency Management office to create a Multi-Hazard Risk Assessment tool. The goal was to integrate all GIS data related to natural and manmade hazards into a single Geospatial viewer, and to allow for basic analysis and visualization of the data. The tool gives users a better understanding of the connections between, for example, extreme rainfall, landslides, and dam failures, and provides for visualization of this in a Geospatial context. It also provides additional functionality in that it can assess potential societal impacts by determining what the amount of damage might be for a specific hazard from a potential event. The use of Geospatial Visualization as a communication tool could be applied to many other areas as well, including the effects of sea-level rise due to climate change, basic climate science, the risk of rock and landslides due to transportation projects, enhanced precipitation patterns in mountainous environments, and the list goes on.

Geospatial Visualization as a facilitation and communication tool for weather and water issues has proven to be very effective by researchers at UNCA. By working directly with other scientists and decision makers across multiple and varied sectors, better solutions for dealing with issues such as flooding, for example, have been created through the use of Geospatial Visualization techniques. The bottom-line is that by combining data with stakeholder and user values, better decisions will often result. By incorporation Geospatial Visualization, decision makers and the general public can better understand weather, hydro and other information and how it ties to their local communities, and thus into their community values. This is what transforms our process from one of simple education and outreach, which is one-way communication, to a two-way communication process that facilitates good decision making. Geospatial Visualization helps take the uncertainty out the equation and allows people to connect to the real data and facts.

*Greg Dobson ( is the GIS Research Coordinator for the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC) and the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) at the University of North Carolina Asheville Engagement Center.

Figure Information

Figure 1: A 3D display of floodplains overlaid with high resolution terrain data and aerial photography.

Figure 2: Hurricane data displayed in an immersive GeoDome.

Figure 3: The Viz Wall can display many datasets simultaneously with its 16'x8' screen. This can be an effective tool for facilitating group decision making.

Figure 4: Geospatial Visualization can lead to the creation of “virtual tours” shown in animated movies.

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