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Case Studies from the Spatial Sciences: A Special Collection


Jennifer M. Bernstein and Karen Kemp, USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute, USA

INTRODUCTION: Spatial analysis has contributed to addressing environmental problems in a myriad of ways. Defining the spatial scope of an issue is a critical first step in most environmental research projects. Analyzing trends in how a phenomenon moves or changes through and across space makes every unit of analysis a case study. Findings from the field have helped decisionmakers prioritize funding, develop appropriate policy solutions, and demonstrate to the general public how humans impact the non-human world. Environmental problems inherently have spatial boundaries.

The case studies featured in this issue are connected 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 Spatial Sciences Institute at USC, this issue emphasizes manuscripts that employed a case study to illustrate a wider phenomenon or principle rather than provide a technical template for mimicking an analysis technique. Each of these pieces demonstrates one method within the spatial sciences through which a researcher might approach a larger environmental issue.

Given the pressing nature of environmental problems and the need for interdisciplinary approaches, environmental problem-solving depends on the creative and 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.


Introduction to the Special Issue

Jennifer M. Bernstein, PhD, USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute, USA

Karen Kemp, PhD, USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute, USA

Abstract: There is little point in rehashing to readers of this journal that the biophysical environment, and the human lives that depend upon it, are 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, 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.” Students want to understand how to identify environmental problems, apply appropriate research methods, and ultimately develop effective solutions. This gives faculty members a significant opportunity to prepare the next generation of environmental problem solvers. Read more...

Combining Unmanned Aerial Systems and Satellite Data to Monitor Phenological Changes in Tropical Forests: A Case Study from Costa Rica

Andrew Marx, Spatial Sciences Institute, USC Dana and David Dornsife, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA

Donald McFarlane, W.M. Keck Science Department, The Claremont Colleges, Claremont, California, USA

Abstract: The migration of vegetation under the influence of climate change is of great interest to ecologists, but can be difficult to quantify—especially in less accessible landscapes. Monitoring land cover change through remote sensing has become the best solution, especially with the use of unmanned aerial systems (UASs; drones) as low-cost remote sensing platforms are able to collect data at high spatial and spectral resolutions. Unfortunately, in the context of climate change studies, the lack of comparative UAS data sets over decadal timescales has been limiting. Here, we describe a technique for the integration of historical, low spatial resolution satellite-based Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) data with short-term high-resolution multispectral UAS data to track the vegetation changes in a Costa Rican rainforest over a 33-year time frame. The study reveals the transition of a mixed forest from strongly deciduous to weakly deciduous phenology in the Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge (HBNWR), southwestern Costa Rica. Read more...

The Spatially Explicit Water Footprint of Blue Jeans: Spatial Methods in Action for Sustainable Consumer Products and Corporate Management of Water

Robert O. Vos, Spatial Sciences Institute, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, USA

Abstract: To improve and to protect brand reputation, corporate sustainability officers must assist with decisions about how to manage supply chains to avoid deleterious impacts from consumer products, such as food or clothing. This case study shows how one method typically used to identify problematic materials and sources in a supply chain, life cycle assessment, can be made spatially explicit for water footprints. Water must be understood spatially because the use of the same amount of water in an arid place creates more ecological damage than the use of water in places with ample water resources. This case reports on the development of a spatially explicit water footprint for Guess?, Inc., a global apparel company to highlight “hot spots” of negative impacts on water resources. Read more...

Assessing Spatial Characteristics of Lead Soil Contamination in the Residential Neighborhoods near the Exide Battery Smelter

An-Min Wu, Spatial Sciences Institute, University of Southern California, California, USA

Jill Johnston, Department of Preventive Medicine, University of Southern California, California, USA

Abstract: The presence of hazardous chemicals such as lead (Pb) or other heavy metals in the environment poses significant threats to human health. Industrial activities can increase the concentrations of these toxic metals in the soil, water and air where people live, work and play. When exposed to lead, residents face a higher risk of neurological damage, anemia or developmental delays. Urban soil lead levels, for example, are usually higher than the natural background lead levels due to the historical usage of lead paint, leaded gasoline and proximity to industrial activities. We explored a case in southeastern Los Angeles County, where lead contamination in the soil has been a particular concern near a lead-acid battery smelter. In this case study, we investigated soil lead levels across the neighborhoods surrounding the smelter as a mean to support this clean-up decision making. Read more...

Artificial Island Development in the South China Sea: Overcoming Data Scarcity of New Environmental Features Through Shadow Analysis

James E. Luttrull, Spatial Sciences Institute, University of Southern California, California, USA

Steve Fleming, Spatial Sciences Institute, University of Southern California, California, USA

Abstract: The People’s Republic of China’s creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea (SCS) represents a challenge for cartographers and geospatial scientists due to the rapid development of new geographic features in a politically opaque realm. The sudden construction of these islands enhances Chinese political control over the region at great cost to the existing environment, ecology, and natural habitat. When geospatial scientists must assess the impact of such features without direct access, creative solutions combining remote sensing, geographic information system, and environmental and social science can still provide powerful analyses. Read more...

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