Visualizing the impact of storm surge and sea level rise on coastal communities

This page is based upon an original activity by Eileen Johnson, Bowdoin College
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In this lab activity, students are given a data set that has been developed on sea level rise and storm surge for a coastal community in Maine. Students will gain experience in how to use cartography to select important variables that they want to communicate to local officials. The challenge is to distill a rich, local data set into an understandable visualization and how to effectively use cartographic principles to convey this information. This will provide experience on cartography early on in the class that will be applied later to their own data sets. It will also enable them to understand the complexity of natural and social impacts of sea level rise and in combination of storm surge

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Learning Goals

Students learn
  • Use of GIS software for the production of maps
  • Data selection and visualization and visualization with the audience in mind
  • Data management (saving projects, saving data)
  • The importance of communication and visualization of risk and resilience which are then applied to their own individual projects

Context for Use

One of the outcomes of the class is for students to develop maps using the same data source(s) and then compare how their student peers selected the data to visualize and how this was done. We spend time in class examining each of the layouts and providing constructive criticism based upon who is the intended audience and how understandable the representation is. This is helpful for a class that may use spatial analysis to give students hands on experience early on the semester with ArcGIS and cartography. Much of the data that we use is publicly available through the Maine office of GIS. The data can be provided (it is too large to load through a regular FTP site), but it can also be adapted for use in other classes that have a GIS component. This is taught as part of a one semester course as part of a lab exercise. Students start the project in class and complete it outside of class. Typical time to complete is 2-3 hours. I teach the lab towards the beginning of the class to give students a chance to think about visualization, cartographic principles and hands one experience with GIS. This is used in conjunction with a tutorial that is completed in a GIS workbook (Mastering ArcGIS). It enables student to build upon what they learn both by developing the layout and then seeing what their students peers have produced with the same data set.

Description and Teaching Materials

Download the Student handout (Microsoft Word 2.3MB Apr10 14) for this assignment.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Data is available through the Maine Office of GIS or can be shared with participants, but may be most useful in applying the exercise to a local data set.


Students are assessed based upon the description included in the lab example

References and Resources