Natural Disasters Happen, and Maps can Help.

On a grand scale, the term “natural disaster” refers to a natural event such as a flood, earthquake, or hurricane that causes great damage or loss of life. We hear the term “natural disaster” and think about the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. We think about the impact these have, the suddenness with which they occur, and the frightening reality that even when we’re prepared, we’re unprepared. We think about the aftermath, and often believe that no matter how severe, we can recover and rebuild; but things usually aren’t the same.

Remember when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. and buried the Italian city of Pompeii in volcanic ash and pumice? Of course you don’t, because that would make you 2,000-years-old. But, that was a natural disaster; and you could argue it changed history.

Natural disasters happen, they’re inevitable. And you can predict and prepare for them as best you can, but handling these events is more about how you react in the moment and what you can use to make it through with as little damage or loss of life as possible – and that’s where maps come into play.

I recently took an online course from Penn State University titled “Maps and the Geospatial Revolution” taught by Assistant Professor Anthony Robinson, who had a dry humor I could really appreciate. This was also a great course for map nerds (like me) and regular nerds (like me). But what I really enjoyed was how the professor asked us to look at maps in unique ways – not just 2-D, point A to point B, this is North, this is South, etc. – and actually force us to think about how maps have an effect on our lives, and how they are used to help in virtually every situation. Relevant to this topic, and current events, we were asked to discuss where natural disasters happen and how maps can help. Being that I hate talking about something know not, I chose a topic close to home (literally): snowstorms.

I live and work in the Chicagoland area, and the most frequent natural disaster (or hazard) to threaten our area is severe snowstorms – much like what we’re living through right now. These, quite literally, have the ability to make cars disappear. They can cause road closures, triple your commute time, trap people indoors, and typically coincide with below freezing temperatures. And for those who say, “but it’s so pretty” – no, it’s not.

In 2011, Chicago experienced a snowstorm affectionately named the “Ground Hog Day Blizzard.” Sounds cute – it wasn’t. When it was over, some areas dealt with 24 to 30 inches of snowfall, all within a very short span of time. With the beauty of lake effect snow, it didn’t fall evenly, either. “Lake effect snow,” like wind chill, is something that if you’ve never experienced it, you won’t understand.

In an effort to give some reference and perspective, take a look at the spatial data collected for this choropleth map, it represents the snow fall totals for Chicago and surrounding areas after the storm.

(Photo credit:

What you notice right away is the amount of snow is significantly greater just west of Lake Michigan, encompassing all of Chicago and the areas just North of the city –  this could also be the biggest takeaway. This data also reveals a disparity and inconsistency in snowfall distribution. Areas to the West, South, and Southeast of Chicago experienced varying levels of snow, with no distinct pattern to identify the difference. Leading to another issue with preparation: patterns change rapidly, and detecting news patterns can be difficult, especially in terms of “how can we use this information?” And even though pattern detection can be an endless rabbit hole, I think this map really succeeded with separating areas to identify proportion and measurement. The boundaries are clear, and the data itself is consistent. Although, without a frame of reference, it might be difficult to image what “24 to 30 inches” of snow looks like – trust me, it’s a lot.

But what does this information mean? How can we use it?

Disaster mapping, particularly for snowstorms, is difficult because what a person, neighborhood, or city needs varies by location. Does someone need electricity? A snow plow? Tow truck? Jump start? A shovel? Those answers aren’t exactly clear cut with this type of data map. But, this information can be useful in aiding emergency response vehicles and establishing emergency assistance locations. Thematic map data can determine proximity, specifically for a person/area/city, to any number of potential need locations, along with how many people are likely effected. Making inferences is part of mapping and data collection; decisions are made using the information we have available and coming to logical conclusions.

This is just one small example of how we can use maps to help those in need when natural disasters hit. We can view data in real time by monitoring shifting patterns and trends, and adjust accordingly. But we can also use maps to view areas before and after a disaster struck, gauging the amount of damage and what areas were hurt most.

Imagery of the Earth is more accessible now than every before, and we would be fools not to take advantage of every new mapping technology and imaging system we have available. The Global Positioning Systems (GPS) is without the question one of the most important methods we mere-mortals have available today for measuring locations. But what may may not realize is that GPS is just one example of the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), which uses a network of satellites in space to broadcast signals down to Earth, including position information along with the exact time signals were sent. GNSS receivers, like GPS antennas on your iPhone, listen for these signals and compare times/locations from multiple satellites to triangulate your exact location. The same thing happens when you try and locate anything with a GPS receiver, you’re able to generate location information and use that for your intended purpose. That’s a really general synopsis of the relationship between GPS and GNSS and how they work. There is so much to learn, but it gets a bit more complicated, and could end up being another rabbit hole in itself. Credit to Professor Robinson for providing that briefest of brief explanations.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that each region of the United States is under threat from their own unique natural disaster. The western half of the U.S. is at risk of natural disasters we don’t see here in the Midwest. I can’t imagine what it would be like to suffer a devastating earthquake, or fear of wildfire. I realize neither of those are exactly a threat to Chicago, and I’m hard-pressed to believe anyone can fully grasp how deadly wildfires can be unless you’ve witnessed it first hand. Maps can help during those natural disasters as well, but that is a topic for another blog.

The reality here is that winters aren’t great, and when you live in Chicago you expect them to be bad. Plenty of people are advocates of the “it’s all about how you prepare and the precautions you take” mantra. But, truthfully, no amount of preparation is fool-proof, and it certainly doesn’t mean you won’t run into obstacles along the way. In fact, the biggest takeaway you can have from preparation is to try not to get lost in a false sense of security. Preparation is great, but how you react when that preparation fails is even greater.









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