Environmental degradation and climate change have become core social and political issues. Subsequently, it is critical to educate environmental studies and sciences students with respect to the appropriate conceptual models and the relevant skill sets to become effective environmental problem solvers. Spatial analysis, often implemented through the use of geographic information systems, is a key tool for exploring unique combinations of place, space, and time. Spatial analysis uses quantitative, formal techniques to facilitate an in-depth look at how environmental phenomena manifest themselves in a particular geographic location, and is an ideal fit within environmental case study pedagogy. For one, environmental problems inherently have spatial boundaries. Further, case studies regularly accommodate multiple variables. Additionally, spatial analysis can be a teaching tool that challenges students to think outside their preconceived worldviews. For these reasons, we offer this special collection of Case Studies in the Environment, which featuredss manuscripts on case studies from faculty and students at the University of Southern California Spatial Sciences Institute (SSI). Academics, researchers, and students presented with the pieces in this special collection will come away with an understanding of a wide range of spatial analysis techniques, and how they can be applied to creating actionable information around a variety of environmental topics.

There is a little point in rehashing to readers of this journal that the biophysical environment, and the human lives that depend upon it, is suffering. Over the last 30 years, concerns about the environment have evolved from a fringe social movement to a central political issue. In addition to the effects of global climate change, we are well aware that air pollution, deforestation, and soil degradation affect the biological systems on which human life depends.

Hearteningly, there is a growing demand for environmental scientists and specialists [1], and institutes of higher education are following suit with new programs focusing on environmental problem-solving. It is often housed under the broader trend of “sustainability studies” [2]. Students want to understand how to identify environmental problems, how to apply appropriate research methods, and how to ultimately develop effective solutions. This gives faculty members a significant opportunity to prepare the next generation of environmental problem solvers.

Educating the students with respect to both the appropriate conceptual models and the relevant skill sets is a critical aspect of this responsibility. Environmental problem-solving includes a wide range of tools. Given the ultimately interdisciplinary nature of environmental issues, students must be well-versed in various methodological approaches that human and non-human life, quite literally, depend on it.

Case studies illustrate phenomena through in-depth analysis, rooted in time and space [3]. Often, they add nuance and complexity to a widely held theory by demonstrating that things tend to look different “on the ground.” In essence, place and space matter and resist generalization. The spatial analysis, often implemented through the use of geographic information systems, is a key tool for exploring these unique combinations of place, space, and time. Spatial analysis uses quantitative, formal techniques to facilitate an in-depth look at how environmental phenomena manifest themselves in a particular geographic location.

Historically, spatial analysis has contributed to addressing environmental problems in a myriad of ways, such as monitoring sea-level rise, identifying biodiversity loss, understanding vegetation changes, and spotting at-risk ecosystems. All of these findings help decisionmakers to prioritize funding, develop appropriate policy solutions, and demonstrate to the general public the degree to which humans are impacting the non-human world. Further, geospatial visualization of trends derived using spatial analysis serves to communicate the findings to both the decisionmakers and the general public. For example, a dense and lengthy report on the impacts of the growing number of zero-emission vehicles in California may be inaccessible to interested parties, but when visualized using maps and other infographics as a Story Map, the upward trends can be easily understood and thus more impactful [4].

In many ways, spatial analysis is a perfect fit for environmental case study pedagogy. For one, environmental problems inherently have spatial boundaries. Defining the spatial scope of an issue is a critical first step in most environmental research projects. Sometimes a problem is local, sometimes regional, sometimes defined by a single watershed, and sometimes it is global in extent. The spatial analyst or researcher must make unambiguous decisions about where a problem begins and ends. Analyzing trends in how a phenomenon moves or changes through and across space make every unit of analysis a case study.

The scale is a fundamental concept in spatial analysis. The need to make decisions based on spatial and temporal scales can demonstrate the complexities of environmental issues and make students think about them more critically. It is easy to show that while there may be a statistically significant correlation between observations aggregated at certain spatial scales (e.g., census blocks), correlation is often less strong at other scales (e.g., census tract and county level) [5]. This is often described as the modifiable areal unit problem (MAUP), which was first articulated by Openshaw [6]. The MAUP not only demonstrates to students why choosing a spatial scale is a critical decision but also shows that findings are contingent on methodological choices. Observations about a single phenomenon, while perhaps intuitive, may not be generalizable across scales. Students are thus enabled to interpret information with a more critical eye rather than immediately embrace findings that echo their previously held perspectives.

Another way in which spatial analysis is a good match for examining case studies is its ability to accommodate their very nature, which is the way a case study regularly accommodates a multitude of variables. Understanding a singular case often involves the inability to draw disciplinary boundaries around an environmental issue or phenomenon. To this end, social science data, physical geographic data, and economic data are often needed to grasp and address the issue at hand. Geospatial data management platforms enable the integration of different data types, both human and physical, sometimes simply through representing them spatially. This supports the effort of case studies research to integrate various disciplinary approaches within a particular case, a critical component of effective environmental problem-solving.

Finally, spatial analysis can be a teaching tool that challenges students to think outside their preconceived worldviews. Quantitative methods have been questioned as to the degree to which they can provide sufficient depth and wide-ranging analysis within case studies research [3]. We challenge the assertion that quantitative methods are inherently limiting. Rather, quantitative methodologies offer an opportunity for researchers to reflect on their own biases and consider environmental issues in more depth. When one maps the relationship between population growth and biodiversity within a particular region, what happens when the data does not match the researcher’s hypothesis? When spatial analysis demonstrates that income, not the presence of urban gardens, is more strongly related to improved health outcomes in inner-city neighborhoods [7], how does an advocate of urban gardens reorient their approach to problem-solving? Spatial analysis is sometimes conclusive, but equally as often exploratory and confounding, challenging to interpretation and overriding pre-conceived conclusions. Ultimately, this approach serves to create problem-solvers who are driven to precision, attention to scale, and nuance, improving their ability to address environmental problems as professionals.

For these reasons, we offer this special collection of Case Studies in the Environment, which features manuscripts on case studies from faculties and students at the University of Southern California Spatial Sciences Institute (SSI). The SSI, founded in 2010, emphasizes the power of spatial thinking and analysis to, among other things, contribute to environmental problem-solving and improving the human-environment relationship. Faculties are engaged in research on topics including pesticide exposure [8], primate biology [9], reforestation in Costa Rica [10], life cycle analysis [11], ocean acoustics [12], and much more. Within just the past 2 years, SSI Masters students have taken on topics such as the siting of wind and wave farms [13, 14], access to urban greenspace [15, 16], spatial narratives and conservation planning [17], wildland management practices [18], biochar [19], wildfire [20, 21], at-risk species protection [22, 23], wetland delineation [24], the spread of invasive species [25], and jaguar migration across the US–Mexico border [26].

What unites these topics is their inherently spatial perspective, employing technologies such as remote sensing and geographic information systems. Further, the institute is committed to high-quality pedagogy, regularly examining, improving, and revising courses to serve the demands of a continuously evolving academic field and related geospatial industry. Masters students are the recipients of a well-vetted, intensive, and arguably decidedly successful program designed to produce a high-caliber product within a short period. USC’s SSI is far from the only department or institute of higher education furthering these goals, but given the degree to which faculty and students have produced a large volume of top-notch work in this space, we feel as though a special collection of this journal focused on the SSI is well-warranted.

CONTENTS OF THIS SPECIAL COLLECTION

This collection of manuscripts represents the diversity of topics addressed by the SSI faculty and students generally. They range from life cycle assessment to exposing the extent of soil lead contamination to photogrammetry in the service of climate change analysis. Each one provides context and general information on the methods used to address the issue of concern. If presented in the classroom, the same or similar data can be found on-line and students directed to determine the specific workflow they could use to replicate the analysis.

James Luttrull and Stephen Fleming’s case study “Radar horizon estimation from monoscopic shadow photogrammetry of radar structures: A case study in the South China Sea” demonstrates how advanced geospatial science techniques can assist in assessing landscape change in data-scarce environments. While it may seem that we are awash with data streaming in from satellites, in contexts such as the one they describe—the construction of artificial islands in the ecologically fragile South China Sea—there are still some black holes of data accessibility, particularly when the relevant landscapes are controlled by secretive governments. Luttrull and Fleming show how geospatial tools and techniques from both social science and spatial science can be used to construct useful data where it otherwise does not exist.

Robert Vos, in “The water footprint of a pair of blue jeans: Spatially-explicit life cycle assessment in action for sustainable corporate management of water,” provides a real-world example that shows how we can determine the total impact on the environment of consumer goods production. In today’s media, we often see products compared in terms of the number of resources consumed in their manufacture and delivery to consumers. Vos’ example provides not only insight into generic life cycle assessment but also into how that assessment can be enhanced by adding the spatial component.

Andrew Marx and Donald McFarlane illustrate how the newest geospatial technology in the form of unmanned aerial systems (“drones”) can help us to assess the impacts of climate change in critical, inaccessible ecosystems. In “Combining UAS and satellite data to monitor phenological changes in tropical forests: A case study from Costa Rica,” they explain how quickly acquired high-resolution data collected using multispectral imaging equipment mounted on drones can be used to supplement traditional Landsat data available over several decades at much coarser scales. Their case study describes how remote sensing is used to determine long-term land cover changes and highlights the value now being realized from the widespread availability of UASs for scientific research.

Su Jin Lee, Lynn Dodd, Lauren Mullarkey-Williams, and Kevin Mercy’s case study “Conjecturing elements of past settlement on Santa Catalina Island, California through consideration of traditional ecological knowledge embedded in hydrologic and hydraulic analysis modes” illustrates how GIScience provides new ways of pursuing archeological research. By using spatial analysis and geospatial data to explore traces in the landscape that may have impacted how indigenous communities used and modified their environments, the authors explore whether these tools can be used to provide insight into traditional ecological knowledge.

Anthony Mosinski and Jennifer Bernstein, in “Using a weighted overlay model to predict wind energy risk to avian and bat species: Ohio Case Study,” walk the reader through one of the earliest forms of spatial analysis, overlay, to demonstrate the timeless value of this simple but powerful technique. By combining a wide spectrum of criteria and constraints represented in the form of map overlays and applying formal logic to determine the relative importance of each of these considerations, landscapes can be categorized according to their economic and environmental suitability for development, protection, or management.

An-Min Wu and Jill Johnston’s case study “Assessing spatial characteristics of soil lead contamination in the residential neighborhoods near the Exide battery smelter” shows how spatial thinking and exploratory spatial analysis can be used to support remediation planning in heavily polluted environments. Working with an extensive, publicly available dataset of soil samples densely distributed in a large neighborhood in Los Angeles, they show how detailed maps of lead contamination can be used to help in planning the most effective and cost-efficient clean-up operation.

The case studies featured in this collection include a variety of methodologies and a multitude of topics, but they are united in their use of spatial analysis techniques, awareness of pedagogical best practices, and commitment to spatial science as a tool for environmental problem-solving. In selecting from the wide variety of contributions made by faculty and students within the SSI at USC, we emphasized manuscripts that used a case study to illustrate a wider phenomenon or principle rather than provide a technical template for mimicking an analysis technique. That information is available elsewhere. Rather, each of these pieces demonstrates one method within the spatial sciences field through which a researcher might approach a larger environmental issue.

Academics, researchers, and students presented with the pieces in this special collection will come away with an understanding of a wide range of spatial analysis techniques, and how they can be applied to various environmental topics. Given the pressing nature of environmental problems and the need for interdisciplinary approaches, environmental problem-solving depends on creative, exploratory combination of multiple methodologies. After delving into these case studies, readers will understand that spatial analysis is not necessarily a superior technique to qualitative approaches, but rather one tool in a wider toolkit enabling environmental problem-solving.

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

JB and KK co-edited this Special Issue, The Role of Spatial Science in Environmental Case Studies, and jointly developed the main concepts presented in this manuscript. Dr. Bernstein wrote the section of the article arguing for the importance of case studies within the spatial sciences with Dr. Kemp’s feedback. Dr. Kemp summarized the manuscripts of the contributors.

FUNDING

This project was unfunded.

COMPETING INTERESTS

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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