Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Fieldwork in a Digital World

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Fieldwork in a Digital World

Article excerpt


In 1993 Weekly World News created a sensation at checkout lanes everywhere with the alarming announcement that a strange creature--half-man, half-alligator--had been discovered in a Florida swamp. Geographically, it turns out, the report left something to be desired. Four months later an investigative report in Outside magazine improved the spatial accuracy and precision of the incredible discovery with a well-documented claim that the beast actually resided in Marsh's Free Museum in Long Beach, Washington (White 1994). Even after Outside's convincing report, a newspaper somewhere back East denied the existence of both the museum and the creature. It seems that a skeptical reporter had checked the telephone book for Long Beach, California, instead of Long Beach, Washington. Adding to the confusion, the museum's promotional postcard unequivocally states that "Jake the Alligator Man"--as he is affectionately called by those who know him best--actually came from "a famous California museum." But the eponymous Mr . Marsh himself knows a man who knows a man who saw a similar creature in a swamp somewhere in East Texas.

Now, with geographic information systems (GIS), the global positioning system (GPS), and field-station technology, field investigators need never again confuse Florida, Washington, California, and Texas. The precise geocoordinates of Jake, the display case he calls home, the museum, and the town of Long Beach can be reported to a latitude/longitude precision of .01". Of great interest to me, though perhaps not to you, is the additional, derived information that Jake's waypoint lies on an azimuth of 76[degrees] precisely 3,479.614 kilometers from my own waypoint at that time in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Ed Bright, Don Field, and I discovered these amazing facts while conducting field verification of classified satellite imagery on the Washington coast.

I confess, however, that Jake has little to do with the rest of this essay. In the spirit of tabloid headlines at grocery stores near you, I shamelessly used him to get your attention. My real intention is to write about fieldwork and the remarkable improvements that GIS, GPS, and field-station technologies have brought. For what it's worth, however, we did detect stitch marks on Jake's torso that might suggest some sort of postmortem, batch-mode gene splicing.


Once, on a remote mountainside in upstate New York, I compared the landscape before me with a satellite image and suddenly realized that the forest was undergoing massive changes--changes affecting hundreds of square kilometers that, in theory, might be related to the landscape processes causing acidification of some Adirondack Mountain lakes (Dobson 1990). Without that synoptic view in my hand, I would have seen the trees but not the forest. The elation I felt at that initial moment of discovery could not have been greater if I'd found an uncharted island at sea, and the research that followed was as intriguing as any mystery could be. For the next three years my colleagues and I conducted research, examining the Adirondack case in detail and discovering similar cases in Sweden and elsewhere. We concluded that the suspected relationship was correct and could have profound implications regarding the impacts of acid deposition. The discovery and subsequent research were published in the Annals of the Associati on of American Geographers, and one reviewer called it a "breakthrough" in the understanding of lake acidification (Dobson, Rush, and Peplies 1990).

That revelation was based on a page-size hardcopy image produced in the laboratory and carried in my backpack. I still recall how much I missed the heavy reams of paper maps left in my car and multiple satellite images stashed in the lab. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, to bring all those maps and images to the field in a portable computer? Better yet, wouldn't it be grand to have the computing power to process those images and maps, incorporate my new observations, and conduct geographical analyses in the field? …

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