GIS and Remote Sensing > Activities > Exercise 5: The human impact of sea level changes, plus extensions to impacts of other natural events on human populations
Author Profile

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

Resources in this top level collection a) must have scored Exemplary or Very Good in all five review categories, and must also rate as “Exemplary” in at least three of the five categories. The five categories included in the peer review process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see

This page first made public: Aug 2, 2010

Exercise 5: The human impact of sea level changes, plus extensions to impacts of other natural events on human populations

Barbara and David Tewksbury, Hamilton College


In this eight-part exercise, students download NOAA high resolution bathy/topo DEMs and TIGER census data to predict the location of shorelines, the extent of inundation, and the number of people affected by sea level rise as a result of global warming and tsunami in various parts of the coastal US; extensions include locating Pleistocene land bridges, saving ArcMap files for display in Google Earth, developing a Map Book report with data driven pages, and predicting the human population affected by potential expansion of the 2009 Station Fire in southern California. You might also be interested in our Full GIS course with links to all assignments.


Type and level of course
Entry level GIS course for geoscience students.

Geoscience background assumed in this assignment
Limited knowledge of tsunami and of Pleistocene sea level changes.

GIS/remote sensing skills/background assumed in this assignment
Downloading and prepping data and getting all data into the same coordinate system; hillshading DEMs; reclassification; symbology and display properties; attribute tables and selection by attributes; map layout and designing inset globes; Arc to kml conversions; creating a Map Book with data driven pages.

Software required for this assignment/activity:
ArcGIS 10 (ArcView license level) with Spatial Analyst extension (ArcGIS 9.3 version also available).

Time required for students to complete the assignment:
This is a multipart exercise that takes two weeks of lab and homework time.


GIS/remote sensing techniques students learn in this assignment
Using the style manager to add a new color ramp; joining attribute tables; reclassification by another method and converting raster to polygon; creating a layer from selected features; selecting by location; selection statistics; buffers and buffering; slope analysis; Arc to kml conversions; creating a Map Book with data driven pages; dealing with printing issues for ArcMaps with multiple data frames.

Other content/concepts goals for this activity
Exploring new online data sites and dealing with metadata and prep for new types of data; practice preparing workflow charts for GIS analyses; using various aspects of the Search function in ArcGIS 10.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Analysis of the limitations of the data and conclusions drawn from the data; comparison of different areas and analysis of why different coastal areas are similar or different; application of techniques to a new, but related, problem; communication of results, not just reporting results.

Description of the activity/assignment

This is Exercise 5 in a semester-long GIS for Geoscientists course. You can find the other exercises in this series on the course summary page or by typing Tewksbury GIS Exercise into the Cutting Edge search engine.

NOAA has developed high resolution bathy/topo DEMs for several dozen areas of the coastal US. These are outstanding data sets that allow different students to download different data sets and then to compare their analyses of both shoreline changes and the populations affected by sea level changes. The data also come in to ArcMap as ASCII files without defined coordinate systems, so students learn how to convert ASCII to Raster and practice what they know about prepping data. Part of the point of the exercises is also to give students experience with a new set of online data sources.

Exercise 5a: Homework assignment, where students go to the original online data sources and download and prep a NOAA coastal bathy/topo DEM, a world bathy/topo DEM (etopo1), and a USA Counties shapefile from ArcGIS Online. Each student downloads a different coastal bathy/topo DEM.

Exercise 5b: Lab work plus homework assignment, where students download and prep census data for the area of their DEM. Although students download their data from the easy-to-use ESRI census data site, the exercise also gives students experience in using the much more difficult-to-use American FactFinder website because the ESRI site currently says, parenthetically, "to be retired soon" (much to my dismay).

Exercise 5c: Homework assignment where students do an Internet search of reliable web sites and/or research papers to determine estimates for predicted magnitudes of sea level rise as a results of global warming and run-up heights associated with damaging historic tsunami.

Exercise 5d: Lab work plus homework assignment, where students reclassify the bathy/topo DEM to locate a variety of new shoreline levels, convert raster to polygons to show inundation, use "select by location" to find all census blocks that have centroids in the new "below sea level" polygon, and use attribute table statistics to determine the total population potentially affected. Students create map layouts at several different shoreline levels and export jpegs to create a pseudo-animated PowerPoint presentation for their section of coastline. They also write a short summary of their sea level rise results, including limitations and uncertainties.

Exercise 5e: Following class presentation of PowerPoints and discussion of limitations and uncertainties, students learn how to convert ArcGIS files to kml for viewing in Google Earth. For homework, they learn how to create spiffy globe inset maps key maps and graphics using a spherical projection in ArcMap and how to cope with printing problems that can arise with multiple data frames in ArcMap.

Exercise 5f: Homework assignment, where students 1) create a GIS analysis workflow chart for Exercise 5d and 2) do an analysis to show sea level and land bridges during the height of Pleistocene glaciation.

Exercise 5g: Lab plus homework assignment, where students learn to use the new functionality in ArcGIS 10 for creating data driven pages. The assignment is to prepare a report for the local city council on the potential impact of sea level changes. Students combine the graphics modified from Ex 5e for the cover, a revised version of the report from Ex 5d, and a map book with data driven pages created in Ex 5g to create one pdf of their report.

Exercise 5h: Lab plus homework assignment to develop two workflow charts illustrating a GIS analysis of 1) how many people were potentially at risk during the Station Fire in California in early September, 2009 and 2) what areas are most vulnerable to slope failure as a result of the Station Fire. For this exercise, students must apply what they have learned from the sea level rise exercise to analyze a related but different "population impact" problem. In order to do this assignment, they have to use ArcMap Help and their textbook to find out about buffers, buffering, and slope analysis.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Assessment varies with each portion of this exercise and ranges from answering questions in an assignment handout to writing an impact summary with analysis of limitations and uncertainties of both data and the GIS analyses, creating a PowerPoint, making a report addressed to a city council audience with cover, text, and a map book with data driven pages, and creating several workflow charts.More information about assessment tools and techniques.

URLs and References

Directions for downloading all data from online data sources are included in the exercises.

Download teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Exercise 5: The human impact of sea level changes, plus extensions to impacts of other natural events on human populations --Discussion  

Join the Discussion

Log in to reply

« Exercise 4: Choropleth Map of the Happiest States, plus Effective Map Design       Exercise 3: Reclassifying the New York State Geologic Map »