Environmental Engineering and GIS

Geographic Information Systems/Science or GIS is becoming, if it is not already, a vital tool for the environmental sciences. It is more than a simple digital evolution from cartography to IT based geographic data and digital mapping offers enormous benefits to research, engineering, project management and resource allocation. Useful in the private and public sector, it allows decision makers the benefit of streamlining an operation using more information more readily and quickly. It is used in town planning and waste disposal, in clean-up operations for oil spills, in building new road networks and planning infrastructure for those roads, and in natural disaster relief.

Because it is fast becoming an essential tool, you will find many options to study GIS for your chosen field at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Most states have at least one university with an accredited program. At the moment, it is rare to be able to take it as a dedicated undergraduate degree. You must study a relevant science and take GIS as a minor subject. Where advisable, it is strongly advised to take the option because if you don't need it at the start of your career, you will within a few years. Most employment opportunities you will seek should not require a Master's, but postgraduate study is arguably essential if you wish to eventually manage your own projects.

Environmental and Civil Engineering generally has a geographic element so it will be advantageous for you to have this transferable skill; leaving a career in one field means you have a valuable skillset for another. Essentially, GIS refers to a set of geographic data, and the process of collecting, organising, manipulating and presenting it. Part of the growth of popularity of GIS as a decision making tool is just how much cheaper it has become. Going back just a decade or two, for many it would have been prohibitively expensive, a business luxury even, but today it is a vital tool for engineers and planners (2, p46).

GIS specialists have great IT skills, advanced understanding of geographic data, and can present information in a visually attractive and functional way. Learn more about becoming a GIS specialist, GIS degree programs, and environmental engineering degrees.

How Civil & Environmental Engineers Use GIS

Environmental engineering is combination of environmental science and several forms of engineering in the promotion of the natural environment, pollution control and waste management (this covers sewage as well as recycling and landfill). In this way, it can be considered a form of civil engineering which is about infrastructure (1, p1) but with the added paradigm of treating the environment as part of a vital natural backbone of the world around us.

GIS permits Environmental and Civil Engineers to provide data to decision makers in such a way that they can examine and use, and information on which they may base their decisions. The flexible nature of the database, using popular file formats (database files, images, spreadsheets) where the final product is often a high-resolution image, map or model tailored to the person or group expected to use it, it is accessible to everyone (1, p1-2). They are also flexible to use, meaning that teams of people can collaborate at once. When multiple departments are involved in a large environmental engineering project, such as the building of a new road network (2, p48), it's easier to collaborate between organisations because of the standard formats used in a GIS.

  • Utility companies and their engineers use GIS data to plot, plan and predict usage rates at any given time. The fact that we in the western world only experience brownouts or blackouts when something goes wrong, rather than as a matter of routine because our respective national grids cannot cope with demand spikes during the day (more water in the morning when we shower before work, more electricity in the evening when we are at home watching TV, playing on consoles, use lights and heating or air conditioning), is all testament to the power and necessity of GIS data (2, p40-41).
  • Management of solid waste is a thankless task and without it, we wouldn't have the cleanliness that we enjoy. It is expensive, time consuming and a growing problem for the waste disposal companies that collect recycling and items to go for landfill. They use GIS for such things as how to transport the waste (3, p1-2). This is done, amongst other reasons, to minimise the cost and maximising the efficiency and safety.
  • Even though we are recycling more material, there is still much that must go to landfill because it cannot be recycled. Planners consider a number of factors when siting facilities and GIS is used to plan effective strategies (7). Such questions that may be considered here include the impact on local wildlife, natural water sources, water and air quality, accessibility and whether it impacts protected areas.
  • Mass transit is an on-going issue and one of the most effective ways in which we utilize GIS. Do we have enough roads to cope with growing transport needs? Are the rail links efficiently planned? Are our major roads wide enough and are they in the right places? This last question was the issue behind the TIMED (Transportation Infrastructure Throughout Louisiana) program in 2007 (4).
  • Relief and emergency agencies use GIS to get aid to people living in affected areas. This is as true in warzones (for example, the various Red Cross organizations working in Syria) as it is following flooding or landslides and earthquakes. When an earthquake hit northern Italy in 2012, Environmental Engineers assessed the likelihood and potential hazards of the release of toxic materials from industrial plants, and from local waste and pollution disposal areas (6). Issues such as this may not be an immediate concern for the public who are not living there, but they are all factors that must be accounted for in the relief and clean-up efforts.

Some Example Transportation Applications

The United Kingdom is undergoing massive reorganization of its rail network in the southeast at present. There are two major projects - one is still in the planning phase and the other is expected to complete in 2016. Firstly is the HS2 link that will connect the major city of Manchester to London, allowing faster travel between the capital and the north's largest city.

The second is the Crossrail link in London which will be the largest expansion of the city's metro (London Underground) for decades; it will also vastly improve the rail network across southeast England, the area with the largest population concentration. In London, it will dwarf the refurbishment and reorganization of the city's transport network ahead of the London 2012 Olympics. This massive public project has been planned and built around GIS (8, p1) in a time when some civic projects consider it a bonus tool rather than an essential part of the planning process. Crossrail managers embraced existing data, collating information from hundreds of sources across centuries of redevelopment of London (8, p2-3). Planning new tunnels and stations and new routes using existing tunnels presented problems of their own.

GIS is not just useful to enormous civic projects like Crossrail or the Louisiana system mentioned above (4). Many transport companies around the world use it to prioritise and streamline their networks and plot the most efficient route systems (2, p60,-64). There is no greater example than the school routes of American cities. The logistics of moving people between two points or more, and making sure there is enough provision for a route in high demand, and not too much for a route in low demand, is part of the dynamics of GIS. These can be subject to great change and by plotting such information as ticket sales, overcrowding, underused and other hard figures into a map can tell the relevant people where efficiency may be improved (1, p6).

Example Waste Disposal Applications

India is experiencing exponential growth towards industrialization, population growth, urban growth (from 11% in 1901 to 26% in 2001) and pollution as it seeks to compete on the world stage with its First World business partners and rivals (3, p1287-1288). Civic Planners and Environmental Engineers are just beginning to understand the problems with the management of solid waste as India progresses. It is largely acknowledged that anywhere in the world, waste collection is one of the biggest expenditures of urban managers - in terms of time and effort as well as money, especially with growing international regulations of how to manage it (3, p1288). In 2006, a comprehensive paper was published explaining the potential for GIS in one particular area of India where this was a problem (3); a separate study proposed a similar solution to the growing economy of Nigeria (9) (10). The paper effectively demonstrated that it was more than possible to utilize GIS in waste management.

Some authorities may shy away from using GIS for selecting a site because of the expense and time involved in the process. Siting is an import aspect of this though, and enthusiasts claim it saves money and effort in the long run (11). Due to lower cost, authorities in the western world have embraced the technology far more than their counterparts in the developing world (12). The flexibility of the tool means that strategies can be easily calculated to each town and city; using GIS for siting is expected to become a much more important factor as regulations progress (12, p1041).

GIS and Air Pollution

Today, where most countries in the developed world have a Clean Air Act or equivalent, industry and commerce and even civic authorities must be careful about what they pump into the air and how much, there is no better tool for monitoring air pollution than digital mapping. As a 3D graphic image, a map can show us not just how much pollution has been recorded at any single point at any point in time, but also where pollution may coming from and where it is going. Sources of pollution are not easier to monitor, but with the data made available through GIS, it is easier to trace and understand the worst areas (13, p2), and to quickly eliminate natural sources of atmospheric inclusions. An added benefit of this to health planners is the ability to correlate health issues in areas of high pollution. GIS has made it easier in the US to implement the provisions of Clean Air Act and manage the air quality.

Urban pollution is not the only way in which we can manage air quality. In arid areas such as the states of Arizona and Texas where dust storms are likely and can damage crops and property, the technology has been an essential part of the early warning system and the planning process to manage such dust storms through land and water barriers and the planting of appropriate vegetation (13, p9-10). For both urban and rural observation and management, GIS has offered several distinct advantages over conventional mapping.

  • With conventional and traditional modelling in cartography, it was difficult, if not impossible to produce maps to the depth and degree that GIS permits
  • Pollution data can be updated quickly and easily when used in conjunction with remote sensing and electronic communication such as cloud computing
  • Data can be shared rapidly and modified in minutes so the data can remain up to date (14)
  • Digital maps allow for working on multiple layers at once, producing many different types of map at once using the same template

Related Degrees

Sources

Matthew Mason

MG Mason has a BA in Archaeology and MA in Landscape Archaeology, both from the University of Exeter. A personal interest in environmental science grew alongside his formal studies and eventually formed part of his post-graduate degree where he studied both natural and human changes to the environment of southwest England; his particular interests are in aerial photography. He has experience in GIS (digital mapping) but currently works as a freelance writer as the economic downturn means he has struggled to get relevant work. He presently lives in southwest England.