Volume 1 2011

Walking barefoot allowed David Hart to traverse a muddy, flooded trail to get photos of the North End Trail on Madeline Island. Photo by Carolyn Rumery Betz/ASC
Sea Grant Research

New Atlas Coasts Into Wisconsin

By Carolyn Rumery Betz

Wisconsin’s new coastal atlas is nothing like yesterday’s oversized books full of colorful maps. In fact, it isn’t a book at all. The Wisconsin Coastal Atlas is digital and contains far more than any hard-covered book possibly could. The atlas is more like an electronic toolbox filled with a variety of Web applications designed to help guide decision-making about coastal management on the Great Lakes. The Wisconsin Coastal Atlas is a Web-based resource, serving as the single entry point to a multitude of databases and learning opportunities. The general public, coastal managers and policy developers will find the new coastal atlas an essential tool for making decisions about issues ranging from coastal erosion to community planning.

The digital format is appealing because the Great Lakes’ coasts are constantly changing, according to David Hart, geographic information systems specialist at Wisconsin Sea Grant. Information is quickly outdated when erosion changes the physical coast, properties change hands, or development takes place. If agencies that create data keep them up to date and accessible on the Web, they are available to anyone at any time, rather than being sequestered on individual computer hard drives. Databases can then be integrated efficiently via the atlas portal to solve problems.

Hart and principal investigator Steve Ventura from UW-Madison are using the state of Oregon’s atlas as a model for Wisconsin’s product. Using funding for the project from Wisconsin Sea Grant, managers of Oregon’s atlas have traveled to Wisconsin as partners in developing the new site.

“Oregon’s atlas has been very effective in terms of organizing and presenting information. People will sit around the computer screen, bring up the map, look at the data, and use the map as a common framework to discuss coastal issues. The director of the Oregon Coastal Management Program feels it has brought people together like nothing else before,” said an enthusiastic Hart.

Like Oregon’s atlas, four components constitute Wisconsin’s site: tools, maps, catalog and learn. Each feature has been developed through a team of experts. The tools component, for example, is being developed with help from Wisconsin’s new Coastal Management Fellow, Kathy Johnson, funded for two years through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program.

Hart believes the quality of the map products will be outstanding because of partnerships with UW-Madison’s Land Information and Computer Graphics Facility, Cartography Lab, Robinson Map Library and the Wisconsin State Cartographer’s Office.

The catalog feature allows users to discover, evaluate and download coastal geospatial data. The learn component, when complete, will provide information about coastal issues and places, as well as place-based games for K-12 educators.

While the initial focus of the atlas is on identifying and mitigating coastal hazards, its open architecture allows for additional tools and components to be added over time. Hart anticipates the Wisconsin Atlas will serve as a template for other Great Lakes states, eventually resulting in an integrated network of sites throughout the region.

The overall project is also addressing six research questions that speak to the science needed to effectively build and link coastal Web atlases, such as how to develop effective archives for coastal geospatial data and how to resolve discrepancies in terminology between jurisdictions. The groundwork for the Wisconsin Coastal Atlas has been evolving for the past 15 years, but it should be well worth the wait.

“I heard one research scientist say that he spent as much as 80 percent of his time on a project just trying to find the data he needed,” said Kate Barrett of the Department of Natural Resources’ Office of the Great Lakes, who expects to be a regular user of the atlas. “The Coastal Atlas is an efficient way to discover coastal data over the Internet and run your query.” Barrett anticipates using the atlas to prepare regional maps, such as the distribution of existing and potentially restorable wetlands near Lake Michigan.

Visit the newly launched Wisconsin Coastal Atlas website at wicoastalatlas.net.

The Aquatic Sciences Center is the administrative home of the
University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute & University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institute.

©2011 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents