Unleashing Data for Sustainable, Healthy Communities

By Aaron Ferster

One of my first jobs was serving as the writer for a team developing a new bison exhibit at the National Zoo here in Washington, DC. Not only did I get to walk past elephants and zebras on the way to the office every morning, when I got there I spent time learning and writing about the fascinating history of an iconic western species.

Archival map illustrating bison population decline in  early 1900s.

“Extermination of the American Bison” prepared by W.T. Hornaday

An image from that work has stuck with me almost 20 years later: a map by zoo founder and conservationist William T. Hornaday: The Extermination of the American Bison. Simple, color-coded ranges, population estimates, and dates illustrated how the North American herd had been divided in two by the first transcontinental railroads, then assaulted by “the great slaughter” until few remained.

But we know now that the story of the American bison has a happier ending. The species has rebounded and today is counted in the hundreds of thousands.

I was thinking about the basic elements of that same story last week in a crowded hotel conference room hearing about the launch of the President’s “Ecosystem Vulnerability Climate Data Initiative” and its “Ecoinformatics-based Open Resources and Machine Accessibility (EcoINFORMA).”

At the event, EPA researcher Anne Neale explained how she and her partners have developed EnviroAtlas, a collection of interactive tools and resources that allow users to explore and visualize the many benefits people receive from nature, what she and other scientists refer to as “ecosystem services.” It also provides information linking the environment and human well-being, including the Eco-Health Relationship Browser tool, which shows how ecosystems contribute to human health.

Of course, instead of colored circles and herd numbers, EnviroAtlas combines multiple ecosystem-based data sets, sophisticated geographic information systems, and visualization tools to present fine-scaled, multilayered maps and other resources that people can download and use as they seek to make decisions that will keep their communities healthy and resilient.

EnviroAtlas, which includes more than 300 data layers, serves as the ecosystem services “resource hub” to the larger EcoINFORMA initiative, a data resource designed to facilitate assessments of the impact of climate change, pollution and other stressors on ecosystems, biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as assessments of management responses to such stressors.

EPA's EnviroAtlas

EPA’s EnviroAtlas

EnviroAtlas and Data.gov’s EcoINFORMA aim to provide the same insights that William T. Hornaday used some 130 years ago to understand the plight of the American bison. It’s a modern, high-tech approach to the same basic questions: how are today’s actions likely to impact future resources, what is the state of the environment, and what do we need to consider to make the best decisions for long-term sustainability and human well-being?

With EnviroAtlas and other resources, EPA researchers and their partners are working to help communities make the right decisions, and ensure that future generations can look back 130 years from today to the opening chapters of environmental stories that feature happy endings.

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the lead science writer for EPA’s Office of Research and development, and the editor of It All Starts with Science.


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