1988 GIS Man Nature and Technology Video

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A 1988 short film from the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center on man, nature, and technology


Date Taken:

Length: 00:04:29

Location Taken: Sioux Falls, SD, US


The first public recognition that man’s life, in sickness and health, is intertwined with the forces of nature dates back to the early Greek thinkers. Hippocrates maintained that nature, so far from being opposed and conquered, must rather be treated as an ally and friend whose ways must be understood   and whose counsel must be respected. - The survival of early man was simply a result of his ability to learn about and adapt to his environment. To gather and record information about his surroundings. And to use that information to survive in an unforgiving world where failure meant death. Behind me is a sharp drop in the terrain. A cliff. Now, at first, this appears to be just another geologic wrinkle on the face of South Dakota’s prairie. But this particular formation is unique because it symbolizes the survival of thousands of primitive prairie people for eons, before the arrival of the first white men. Today, we know this formation as the Sanson Buffalo Jump site. The Plains Indians knew this place. And more importantly, they knew how to use it. This particular bit of geographic information was passed from generation to generation and from tribe to tribe. Small groups, or bands, from various prairie locations would unite at specific times of the year. They would start a gradual pushing, or driving, of buffalo herds that were scattered across the prairie. A band of warriors would appear on the distant horizon, in full view of the bison. The animals would notice the distant intrusion and meander away from the Indians in the direction of the jump site. The maneuvering of the unsuspecting buffalo was subtle and would sometimes take several days. After a time, the grouping of the herds grew large enough to feed the tribe throughout the winter. The numbers were there. The location was set. And the trap was sprung. The herd was charged and stampeded toward the jump. The Indians would ride alongside the buffalo, screaming and taunting the beasts into fear and panic. Other members of the tribe would appear from out of the gullies, draws, and on the horizons, yelling, waving, and forming a human corral to keep the animals headed in the right direction. The panic-gripped buffalo would gain more and more speed and momentum, galloping headlong toward doom in their effort to escape danger. At the last moment, if any of the animals could comprehend what was happening, it was too late. Because of the swell of fear and panic, and the large size of the herd, there was no stopping. The animals would literally push themselves off the edge of the cliff into a gnarled pile of broken carcasses, accompanied by clouds of dust and hair. So what are we trying to illustrate here? This is a basic example of a geographic information system. To survive, the Indians had to know several elements of the geography of the area in which they lived. Obviously, the location of the jump was an important piece of information. They also had to be aware of the location of the other tribal bands so that they could get help from them in this gigantic group effort. Knowledge of area vegetation was essential for locating likely buffalo grazing spots. And the topography, or surface features, of the land was used to assist the Indians in directing the herds and setting up the ambush at the fatal destination. Finally, after the hunt, they had to get the heavily-loaded travois back across the prairie to the villages by the simplest, most direct route. Village locations were determined based on the need for safety and shelter and not necessarily near the jump site. So what we have here is an example of primitive man using an element of a modern concept – the geographic information system. The combining of a number of types of information about a specific area and using that information to make vital decisions. It was in this area along the Missouri River that early explorers first entered the environment of the Northern Plains tribes. In the year 1800, planning had begun for a major expedition to establish whether or not a usable cross-continent water route existed. The idea was President Thomas Jefferson’s, and he selected Meriwether Lewis to command it in 1801. Lewis, in turn, chose William Clark to accompany him. Together, they became joint leaders of the western expedition that began at St. Louis in 1804. The expedition had no pretensions. A group of tough men set out to make their way across America, by water when they could. They were to record all that they saw on the way, to make maps, and report back to the president. Having reached the headwaters of the Missouri in 1805, they were forced to take horses to cross the Rocky Mountains. Although by then it was clear that no waterway to the Pacific Ocean existed, they pressed on and reached the West Coast by canoeing down the Columbia River. And what did Lewis and Clark learn? First, a disappointment. There was no northwest transcontinental river passage to bring the riches of the West to the Atlantic seaboard. However, the explorers did return with information about a whole new landscape – great plains crowded with buffalo, high mountains, and streams alive with beaver. They discovered ways through the Rocky Mountains, which traders, trappers, and railroad builders would follow in years to come. The most valuable legacies of Lewis and Clark, however, were their diaries that described the territory, its inhabitants, and its vegetation and animal life to a people whose vision, for two centuries, had been limited to the Atlantic seaboard. The diaries and the maps – geographic information – concerning terrain, water, and vegetation, showed the easterners that these new lands offered rewards beyond belief for anyone brave enough to dare the challenge. Responding to western expansion, Congress sanctioned four federal territorial surveys, each named after its respective leader – the King, the Hayden, the Powell, and the Wheeler surveys. After considerable lobbying and debate in Congress concerning consolidation of the western surveys, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed a bill on March 3rd of 1879 to accomplish this task. The authorization combined the four western surveys into one – the United States Geological Survey. Since then, the Survey has provided scientific classification and assessment of our nation’s land, water, and mineral resources for its citizens as well as a series of land maps for a variety of industrial, scientific, commercial, and recreational uses. Although its mission has remained the same, the Survey’s scientific classification techniques have changed dramatically over the years. Decision-makers at federal, regional, and local levels have had complex Earth-related problems to solve. But they’ve lacked an effective way to analyze quickly vast amounts of geographic information acquired over the years. This is where the development of powerful computerized geographic information systems come into play. They’re extraordinary tools for manipulating and analyzing vast amounts of digitized mapped data in geographic form as digital maps – maps in numerical formats. While nomadic Plains Indians passed geographic information about their environment from generation to generation to survive, today’s resource managers may use geographic information systems to store, retrieve, and analyze the inter-relationships of various geographic elements by touching the keyboard of a computer. For instance, looking at the specific area of the Sanson Buffalo Jump site, a computerized geographic information system, or GIS, could answer such questions as, where can we find grasslands adequate for grazing hundreds of buffalo that have topographic slope and drainage patterns suitable for executing the ambush? Taking this concept a step further, we can identify all other suitable jump sites in a larger, unfamiliar area. To locate other sites, we can use the same geographic database that was set up for the Sanson jump site. The primary sources of data compiled for the computerized Sanson jump site information system were extracted from existing maps, satellite data, and aerial photographs. Additional map data on such things as land ownership and population density can also be entered into the geographic information system, if they are needed, to determine suitable jump site areas. The conversion of data from graphic form to numeric form is called digitization. If the primary sources of data are existing maps designed for visual assessment, digitization is usually performed by using special devices that resemble drafting tables, with latitude and longitude location sensors. Along with the map data, the map projection and latitude must be entered into the computer to complete the locational control. The spatial elements that we query exist within the bounds of coordinate systems that have been developed over hundreds of years. Latitude and longitude, map projections, urban address systems. Coordinate systems such as these provide a means of referencing features on the Earth’s surface. They also allow us to measure the features using perimeter, length, area, and direction from and distance between entities. Points, lines, and polygons are traced with an electronic digitizer to establish the specific locations. Small cities may be represented by points. And larger cities by polygons. Roads and administrative boundaries may be shown as lines. Once the database is established, any or all elements can be analyzed and retrieved. Thematic maps – maps that portray particular themes – may be produced using printers and plotters. Tabular data and statistics pertaining to the map may also be printed or displayed. While nomadic Plains Indians used geographic information for survival, today we use computerized geographic information systems for such things asrouting transmission lines, locating mineral and petroleum deposits, monitoring urban change, studying wildlife habitat, and locating suitable housing sites. An incredible amount of information for making decisions on locating housing developments, such as this one in the Spearfish Canyon area of the Black Hills of South Dakota, can be included in just one GIS. Data are available on land uses, soil types, lakes and streams, roads, land ownership, topography,vegetation, and many other themes. In this example, a GIS allows detailed information from many resource categories to be used toproduce a map showing areas that are suitable for housingdevelopments in Spearfish Canyon. The uses of geographic systems are numerous and diverse. Federal agencies use information systems to manage national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, and federal mineral resources. State and local governments use information systems to plan activities. Private organizations use them to target potential market areas and to determine site suitability for development. Planners must keep many considerations in mind when they decide to use a GIS to locate potential housing sites by developing and building a model using information in the geographic database. First, homes needs to be built on landthat has soils compatible with modern construction methods and capable of supporting waste systems. Construction must take place on slopes that have good drainagebut aren’t too steep. Convenient access to existing roads is also necessary. And finally, in areas such as Spearfish Canyon, developers want to takeadvantage of the beauty of the Black Hills by providing views of streams and forests. As you can see, spatial analysis of soils, slope, roads, streams, and vegetation by utilizing a GIS allows a builder to identify and map the land in and around Spearfish Canyon that fits a particular model. If our finite natural resources are to be managed on the basis of the best available information, this information must be transferred to policymakers in a timely manner and in an understandable form. Geographic information systems providea flexible means for storing, analyzing, and retrieving information. The U.S. Geological Surveywill continue to lead in the development and dissemination of GIS technology to solve resource problems encountered by government, private industry, and the public.