A baseline GIS serves as a model for homeland security and oil spill planning.



The impact of the September 11, 2001, tragedy at the World Trade Center in New York City is broad and deep, affecting virtually everyone. It may be hard to understand that the event relates back to the March 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill accident in Prince William Sound, Alaska, but these two events have led to a common effort: the GIS-One Security system for homeland defense and oil spill planning, damage assessment and response. Images from the Valdez accident left enduring memories on the American environmental consciousness. The images of more than 11 million gallons of oil coating shorelines and destroying wildlife, and thousands of workers mobilized to clean beaches reflected what many people felt was the ultimate environmental tragedy to a previously pristine and biologically rich ecosystem, demonstrating the vulnerability that accidents like this can cause. After September 11th, the thought of terrorists sabotaging our oil and gas infrastructure has understandably grown. An intentional attack on the U.S. oil and gas infrastructure could be disastrous.

Due to the large number of petroleum companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico, a GIS for oil spill planning is a vital tool to help protect the southeastern United State’s coastal environment, natural resources and petro-chemical infrastructure. In the late 1990s, 3001 Inc., based in Sulphur, La., proved the advantage of using a GIS in oil spill response through its development of the statewide Louisiana Oil Spill GIS (LOGIS).1 LOGIS continues to grow, as the statewide CIR digital orthophotography layer is now being complemented by a statewide LiDAR-based Digital Elevation Model (DEM) layer. All the derivative benefits resulting from a truly collaborative GIS effort are what make GIS so powerful. Local, state and federal agencies, as well as the private sector, continue to use LOGIS for its original purpose, plus many other things, such as identifying hunting and fishing spots, preparing environmental master plans and even assisting with the recovery effort for the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster earlier this year.

Now, 3001 has developed the GIS-One Security system, extending the Louisiana model eastward along the Gulf of Mexico. GIS-One Security serves as a baseline GIS for homeland security and oil spill planning along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts. The GIS forecasts the movement and fate of floating oil, identifies sensitive environments, evaluates results of oil spills and studies effects of cleanup methods. It also coordinates activities during the response to provide the necessary, consistently formatted datasets and applications for oil spill activities within Alabama, Mississippi, adjacent coastal waters within the Gulf of Mexico and 100 miles inland. It further demonstrates the feasibility of integrating Vessel Tracking Systems (VTS), search-and-rescue operations, and related logistical activities into a common GIS platform.

Landsat imagery of Mobile Bay, Ala., represents an oil spill modeled with NOAA’s General NOAA Oil Modeling Environment (GNOME) software. The yellow spots represent oil in the water, while the red-orange spots represent oil that is beached.

Mapping Out A Purpose

The primary goal in developing GIS-One Security was to combine the best characteristics of existing GIS systems and datasets into a new, state-of-the-art homeland security and oil spill GIS that involved the collaboration of the numerous local, state and federal agencies involved in oil spill response, emergency preparedness and defense. Understanding that homeland security is a collaborative defense, the GIS-One Security project was a group effort among federal, state and local agencies as well as the private sector. The project is headed by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District. “It’s exciting to see this level of cooperation among all parties involved in this endeavor,” says Jay Arnold, vice president of GIS Services for 3001. “Everybody worked toward the common goal identified in the project scope, resulting in a GIS that is useful to a wide range of people. Dozens and dozens of agencies and private companies contributed to this project.”

The focus area for the GIS-One Security project was the coastal zone and navigable waterways in Mississippi and Alabama. However, because oil spills (either accidental or intentional) can occur anywhere, and most available datasets offer regional or statewide coverage when practical, the project area included the entire boundary of both states. This is the same rationale used on the Louisiana Oil Spill GIS project.

Phase One: Examining Data

GIS-One Security was created in three distinct phases. Phase One includes examining data usage and the availability for potential layers, as well as prioritizing data layers, taking inventory of existing data and identifying data gaps. This included creating a common base map derived from satellite imagery and digital orthophotography, USGS digital raster graphics compiled into a seamless product, and current NOAA/NIMA-approved nautical charts. Additional layers included:
  • Coastal wetlands
  • Exploration/production areas
  • Historical and cultural sites
  • Industrial discharges and urban runoff
  • Oil platforms
  • Potential oil spill locations from shipping lanes
  • Protected areas such as state and federal wildlife refuges
  • Sensitive environments such as fishing areas and drinking water sources
  • Tanker accidents
  • Transportation infrastructure

One of the most difficult tasks in Phase One was ranking the data layers and deciding which ones to use for the GIS. The first step in the evaluation process was to review and update the metadata (data about the data) records for each layer. 3001 identified multiple datasets for many of the themes. There were many transportation layers available, some from state transportation departments, some from the U.S. government and some from private companies. 3001 evaluated each layer and determined which one was “best of theme” for the GIS-One Security project. An argument could be made that all of the datasets are important and useful. The counter argument is that the system needs to be simple and streamlined in order to provide timely information in an easy-to-understand format. Another evaluation factor in determining “best of theme” was the update cycle and level of maintenance performed on each dataset by the providing party, which translated to the level of effort required by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Corps of Engineers to maintain the overall system. Data analysts had to remember that the GIS-One Security system would rely on the accuracy and timeliness of the information in it. If the layers were outdated, it could be difficult to make the best decisions. However, the cost to keep layers current and accurate also needed to be considered from an overall budgetary standpoint. It would be impractical, or even financially impossible, to maintain certain layers at a desired level of currency or accuracy. In essence, the driving force behind the entire system was to use components that delivered the most “bang for the buck.”

Phase Two: Data Conversion

In Phase Two, the datasets selected were processed by 3001 and converted from their native formats into repositories for three separate applications:

ESRI ArcView 8.x (ArcGIS) personal geodatabase structure. This provided a portable system for emergency response as needed. The system is run from laptop computers in stand-alone or networked environments. Users can bring their laptops to practice drills and to real events to support onsite activities.

ESRI ArcInfo 8.x (ArcGIS) enterprise geodatabase structure. This was an Oracle-based ArcSDE implementation designed for use within a Local Area Network (LAN) with the capability for multi-user simultaneous access. This is the office-based system that can provide what-if planning scenarios to prepare for events, as well as to serve as the central command post during an actual event.

ESRI ArcIMS 3.x format. This provided an Internet web-based tool for access to certain datasets and GIS functions without requiring any special GIS software on the user’s machine. The only requirement is a web browser and a connection to the Internet. This system was developed and is being maintained by the Corps of Engineers, Mobile District.

3001 also finalized the metadata records and formatted them for compliance to Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) standards. The records were delivered in HTML and ESRI ArcCatalog formats for all layers as part of the Phase Two process. It was imperative that good metadata accompany the data layers for this project. Because one project goal was to integrate existing datasets created for other purposes by other people, knowing the when, where, why, how and who for each data layer was vital in order to use them properly. Any time a data set is re-purposed, creating or updating the metadata should be the first order of business.

In order to utilize the data in a true seamless GIS, it was necessary to re-project all datasets to geographic coordinates, stored as decimal degrees. This allowed for direct use with the ESRI GIS software products and eliminated boundary zone problems inherent with coordinate systems such as State Plane or UTM. The horizontal datum was NAD83 and the vertical datum was NAVD88. It is possible to re-project on-the-fly, but that was not practical for a long-term project such as this. Moreover, re-projecting the raster data layers on-the-fly is slow.

This same Landsat imagery includes a resource report on the right, listing any species affected by the oil spill.

Phase Three: Custom Development

Phase Three involved custom application development using Visual Basic and ESRI ArcObjects to create tools that build upon the default functionality of the ESRI GIS software and existing custom applications. The first step in the programming process was an examination of existing oil spill applications, including the Florida Marine Research Institute’s Marine Spill Analysis System, the General NOAA Oil Model Environment (GNOME), Air Location of Hazardous Atmospheres (ALOHA), and Automated Data Inquiry for Oil Spills (ADIOS) and other tools. 3001 worked with the developers and end users of these systems, together with the U.S. Coast Guard and USACE, Mobile District to identify the most important functions from each system to integrate into the GIS-One Security project.

Where practical, 3001 wrote interfaces to the other applications rather than duplicating these programs. This provided a way to run tools like GNOME in their native environment after accessing them through the GIS-One Security Graphical User Interface (GUI). 3001 wrote tools to then import the results of these other systems directly into the GIS-One Security system. For example, the GNOME system predicts where oil will move over a given time period based on wind and water conditions. GIS-One Security shows the GNOME results as a layer in the GIS. This allows users to then locate all the animals, plants and other resources (layers added to GIS-One Security in Phases One and Two) affected by the oil as determined by the GNOME-predicted path.

Knowing that a GIS must be properly set up and easy to use in order to be effective, 3001 configured and installed GIS hardware and software systems and provided GIS training.

With a broad range of data incorporated into the GIS-One Security system, Alabama and Mississippi are now able to meet all their oil spill planning, response and damage assessment needs. As a result, GIS-One Security is protecting the precious resources the states harbor from dangers we never imagined before the Exxon Valdez disaster and the September 11th attacks. And because the southeast United States is not alone in its vulnerability to oil spill risks and damage, GIS-One Security serves as a model for oil spill planning, response and damage assessment throughout the United States and beyond.

1 Datasets created under the Louisiana program are available online at http://atlas.lsu.edu and http://lagic.lsu.edu.