Exercise 6: 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 nine-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 developing a Map Book report with data driven pages and locating Pleistocene land bridges. 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 tsunamis 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 10.6 or higher with Spatial Analyst extension.

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.

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 6 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.

We present students with the following scenario: "Sea level rise is a significant concern for coastal regions around the world, regardless of whether the rise is comparatively slow due to climate change, rapid due to storm surge, or catastrophically rapid due to a tsunami. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a Tsunami Ready Project and a Storm Ready Project. NOAA encourages all coastal communities to become Tsunami Ready and Storm Ready. You are living in a coastal community that not only wants to become Tsunami and Storm Ready but also wants to have a clearer picture of the potential impact of climate-induced sea level rise over the next century. The City Council has engaged the company that you work for to do an analysis, and your boss has tasked you with doing the analysis and preparing the initial report."

Exercise 6a: Introduction to the scenario described above, followed by a pre-project planning assignment time where students work in pairs to decide how they would proceed, what they would need to do, and what relevant data sources they can find online. We've found that having students think this through and talk it over is a much better way to start assignments than simply handing them an assignment.

Exercise 6b: 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.

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 are in NetCDF format, which students have not dealt with before and which cannot be read directly by ArcMap. Part of the point of the exercises is also to give students experience with a new set of online data sources.

Exercise 6c: Lab work plus homework assignment, where students download and prep 2010 US census data for the area of their DEM and download and use a 3rd party tool for splitting their bathy/topo DEM.

Exercise 6d: 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 6e: 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. In-class presentation of PowerPoints, discussion of limitations and uncertainties, and critique of maps and communication of message.

Exercise 6f: Homework assignment where students 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 6g: Lab plus homework assignment, where students learn to create data driven pages in ArcMap and prepare a report for the local city council on the potential impact of sea level changes in their area. Reports combine a well-designed cover with an executive summary, and a map book with data driven pages in a single pdf.

Exercise 6h: Each student evaluates the reports from four other students.

Exercise 6i: Homework assignment, where students do an analysis to show sea level and land bridges during the height of Pleistocene glaciation and create one map that conveys what they have learned. The class the critiques how well each map communicates the point(s). If we get behind during a particular semester, I omit this assignment, although it is a good extension of what they have just completed.

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.

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Other Materials

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

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. https://ww1.kissmangalist.com


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