Corrected Link for ESI User Survey Results


In our earlier post, Evolution of the ESI Map, we summarize how ESI maps have evolved over the years, and we consider new directions for the maps based on the results of our second ESI User Survey. Unfortunately, the link to the survey results was broken. (Thanks to those readers who pointed this out to us!)

Please view the ESI User Survey results here and feel free to let us know what you think in the comments.

Evolution of the ESI Map


Word cloud showing most frequently used words by ESI survey respondents.

Word cloud of ESI User Survey respondents’ first and second priorities for information displayed on ESI maps. Words mentioned more frequently appear larger in the word cloud. (Word cloud generated by Photo Science, a Quantum Spatial company)

Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps have been produced for over 35 years. Throughout that time, the cartographic product has seen some change (e.g., the addition of the “back of the map” species list, hatched polygons replacing range bars, and the grouping of resources at risk), but by and large, the ESI maps produced in the 80s look very similar to the maps produced in 2014. This is good!

It is a tribute to the ESIs that the format has stood the test of time. We pride ourselves on the fact that a responder in Hawaii can travel to Alaska for a spill, and easily interpret the ESI maps for that region, as they have the same look and feel as those in their home state. The ESI colors, icons, and composition are well recognized by planners and responders, and have been replicated internationally. There’s a lot to be said for consistency!

Increasing Amounts of Data

On the other hand, the content of the ESI data has evolved significantly over the past 35 years. Species have been added (there are currently over 4,000 species included in our master species list!), more data are available digitally, attributes have been added, and more human-use data are collected. While maintenance of the digital data presents less of a challenge, the production of maps that convey the essential information readily and accurately has become increasingly difficult. It has become harder to decipher the shoreline types due to the abundance of biology polygons, and for the same reason, it has become harder to identify which are the more vulnerable populations and where they occur.

The 1985 ESI map of Indian River Bay and the accompanying information from the back of the map.

ESI map of Indian River Bay, produced in 1985.
Most populations were mapped by species, with the species key printed in the Introductory pages. Limited assemblages were mapped (circled above) and were very general (A = numerous species). Click image to view larger.

Increasing Technology Demands

Add to that the evolution of technology. The first ESI maps were produced manually. Next came Desktop ARC/INFO, followed by workstation ARC/INFO (versions 5.x, 6.x, and 7.x) and ArcView 3.x, then the whole new line of ArcGIS products (vs. 8.x-10.x). That’s a lot of change! Through all the software releases, ESI maps continued to be produced. Unfortunately it is unrealistic, if not impossible, to port all the code and procedures used to create the maps to every version update. Consequently, some of the map processes still rely on software versions that are reaching obsolescence. For all these reasons, it is time to reevaluate the ESI map products and the map-making process.

The 1996 ESI map of Indian River Bay and the accompanying information from the back of the map.

ESI map of Indian River Bay, produced in 1996.
Species were now mapped as assemblages, linked by the resource at risk (RAR) number to the “back” of the map. There, a summary of the species found in each grouping is detailed, including their seasonality, concentration, and life stage activities. Click image to view larger.

In conjunction with the Sandy-related ESI mapping on the east coast, NOAA initiated a contract with Photo Science, a Quantum Spatial company (QSI), to evaluate and update the current ESI map and PDF formats. Their first task is to make recommendations on how we might better portray the ESI data. We don’t want to change things that work, but rather, hope to find ways that make them work better with the current ESI data. The goal is a high quality map and PDF product, yet one that can be produced in a cost effective fashion.

The 2014 ESI map of Indian River Bay and the accompanying information from the back of the map.

ESI map of Indian River Bay, produced in 2014.
The format and details have changed little since the 1996 mapping; however, the number of species included has grown considerably. In 1996, the “back of the map” fit on one page; in 2014, the resource details expanded to fill 4 pages, despite using a smaller font. Click image to view larger.

Refining What ESI Users Want and Need

As a first step in this process, OR&R created a User Survey, focusing on the current hard copy map and PDF products. The survey was distributed to federal and state oil spill responders. The survey questions highlighted what information they sought from the ESI maps, what attributes they focused on when evaluating protection priorities, and what features in the current maps they liked best and least. Along with multiple choice questions, there were several opportunities for survey respondents to express their opinions in free text on a variety of topics. Not surprisingly, some of the answers overlapped with general ESI content considerations, making the survey useful for evaluating the ESIs beyond the intended hard copy map focus.

QSI analyzed the survey results, and produced a summary of their findings. Though some of the results were predictable, the analysis highlights some of the more subtle ways the maps are used. It wasn’t surprising that almost all respondents targeted the Threatened and Endangered species in their response considerations, but the survey also showed that the life stage seasonality was one of the lesser used attributes. Why might this be? Is it because it’s more detail than needed? Or is it because that information is hard to extract from the maps? If the latter is true, is there a way we can highlight those activities that would make them more accessible? There are many things to take away from the survey and much to consider. For more details, the survey review, as well as the complete survey results [PDF, 808 KB], is available for viewing on the OR&R website.

We will keep you updated as the map and PDF design unfolds. Until then, if you have thoughts on what you’d like to us to consider, feel free to comment below or send an email to

Sandy ESI Status Update

So many new and exciting things are happening in the world of ESI mapping! The first half of 2014 focused on developing work plans and contracting for the north- and mid-Atlantic “Sandy” updates. As you may recall, following Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy, Congress provided funding to several agencies to ensure that current and accurate spatial data are available for preparedness and response activities in the Sandy-affected areas. As part of this venture, the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) received funding for ESI mapping from Maine to South Carolina. The enormity of the geographic area and time constraints, coupled with the unique opportunity to coordinate with and benefit from the mapping being done by other agencies as part of this effort, led us to approach the Sandy work in a slightly different manner than most of our prior ESI mapping projects.

Example aerial photo taken with MIST digital sensor.

Many of the upcoming ESI data sets for Sandy-related regions will include imagery acquired with a MIST digital sensor. This example image was taken from an altitude of 25,000 feet.

Our Partnerships and Projects

Our long-time partnership with Research Planning, Inc. (RPI) continues, and is being complemented by the addition of three other highly respected coastal mapping groups. The first is another NOAA National Ocean Service office—the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science’s Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (NCCOS/CCMA). This group has been a frequent contributor of ESI data for previous atlases, but this time they are taking the lead in developing the biology and human-use data components for the Long Island Sound region. This requires summarizing the coastal and near-shore species deemed to be at risk in the event of a spill, identifying and brainstorming with the regional experts regarding each species, then compiling and integrating the data from the diverse sources. The same process is followed for the human-use data components, after which these data sets are integrated with the classified ESI shoreline and wetland polygons to produce the final ESI product.

The next addition to our mapping team is Woolpert, a prime contractor on the NOAA Coastal Geospatial Service Contract. In that capacity, they perform a variety of tasks for NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey Office (NGS). They have also been involved in several Sandy-related projects with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), including LIDAR collection for much of the north Atlantic coasts. These data, along with imagery they collect as part of the ESI effort (more details below), will enable Woolpert to validate existing NOAA shoreline data, and to extract current data where the shoreline has seen significant change. Their ESI mapping area covers the Maine and New Hampshire region, as well as the Massachusetts and Rhode Island region. For these areas, Woolpert will be responsible for compiling the complete ESI product—shoreline, biology, and human use. They will also be working in the Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey regions, where they will be leading the ESI shoreline classification phase of the project.

We also welcome Quantum Spatial! This group was previously known as Photo Science, so you may hear them referred to by either name. As Photo Science, they have served as the prime contractor for NOAA’s Coastal Geospatial Service Contract since 2005. They are currently flying parts of the mid-Atlantic coast, acquiring LIDAR and high resolution imagery for NGS, as part of a separate Sandy project. The shoreline extracted under that task will serve as the base shoreline for much of the North Carolina ESI, where Quantum Spatial will be mapping all of the ESI data components. They will also be lead for mapping the biology and human-use data layers for the tidal estuary of the Hudson River, south Long Island, and the New York/New Jersey metro area. In the past, we have tried to coordinate our ESI mapping with the acquisition of new shoreline and imagery by NGS, but it has been very challenging. It is an extra bonus for us to have Quantum Spatial working for both offices in the same region.

RPI will be mapping the remaining Sandy areas, which encompass Maryland, Virginia (including Chesapeake Bay), and South Carolina. I’m sure we will benefit from the knowledge RPI has of their home state, and the experts they deal with locally on a regular basis. Last mapped in 1996, South Carolina is one of the Sandy areas most in need of updating. At the same time, we’re lucky to be able to update Georgia (last mapped in 1997) as part of our regular ESI program. RPI will be doing that work, and will be continuing work on the outer coast of Washington and Oregon.

Sandy ESI regions, contractors, and delivery dates

Sandy ESI regions, contractors, and delivery dates

Enhanced ESI Data Product

Several enhancements are planned for the Sandy ESI atlases and we anticipate that these additions and changes will continue in future ESI development. The geographic extent of the ESI data has been expanded, aiding not only in identifying coastal resources at risk in the event of a spill, but offering increased utility of the ESI data for planning and response to other natural disasters, such as storms. The inland extent will include an area covered by a 3–5 mile shoreline buffer. Offshore, the data will extend to the territorial water mark, approximately 12 nautical miles.

Several human-use and management features will also be added. These include storm surge inundation areas, additional jurisdictional boundaries, beach wash-over sites, potential pollution sources, long term sampling sites, transportation routes, and more.

Comprehensive Tiled Imagery from Maine to New Jersey

As part of the Sandy ESI work, Woolpert will be acquiring approximately 11,700 square miles of 15-cm GSD (ground sample distance), natural color orthoimagery. This imagery will be collected at mean low–mean lower low tide, at a time when there is little-to-no cloud cover, smoke, or atmospheric haze to interfere with the image quality. The imagery will be tiled and will provide a complete, high resolution view of the coastal areas from Maine to mid-New Jersey. The result will be a unique data product that we envision being used for many purposes beyond the ESI development. For the data acquisition, Woolpert will be using a MIST digital sensor, a new and exciting digital camera technology. (Perhaps they will provide greater detail in a future blog post!) Ancillary oblique imagery will also be collected and delivered as part of this project.

Map of east coast, showing flightlines to be used to obtain orthorectified imagery.

Proposed flightlines for the acquisition of orthorectified imagery

Map Products and Data Tools

A contract has been awarded to Quantum Spatial to produce hard-copy ESI atlases for the seven Sandy ESI regions. The maps will be produced at an 8.5 x 11 inch size, and may be somewhat simplified from the current ESIs. For this part of the project, the ultimate goal is a static product that optimizes the transfer of resource information to those who prefer a printed map. Soft-copy PDF products, including the GeoPDF, will be evaluated as potential approaches to enhance data sharing.

In addition, Quantum Spatial will be revisiting some of the ArcMap tools and making recommendations regarding other distribution and use options for the ESI data, such as the use of mobile devices for field applications. As ideas are proposed, I anticipate we will be requesting feedback from all of you, so stay tuned!

Until then, enjoy the summer!

Highlighting 2013: Previewing 2014

It’s hard to believe we’re already into the fourth week of the new year! 2013 seemed to fly by, and the ESI world felt busier than ever–2014 is off to a similar start. This is the excuse I offer, along with my apologies, for the substantial gap between blog posts! I’ll try to make up for that now by summarizing some of the highlights of 2013, as well as providing some news about our goals for the next 12 months.

A small island with palm trees, a large home, and a riprap perimeter.At the start of last year, ESI mapping was in progress in South Florida, the Upper Coast of Texas, and Louisiana. The South Florida GIS data were completed and posted to the NOAA Downloads page in early November. This is one of the regions for which a hard copy atlas was not generated. Because we know there are still many users who prefer a physical “map,” we plan to generate a product for that area, similar to the PDFs produced for the Florida Panhandle. Be watching for those sometime this spring!

The Upper Coast of Texas update was also completed late last year. Work on this atlas was done jointly with NOAA and Texas General Land Office (TGLO). Texas funded and conducted the ESI shoreline work with the Harte Research Institute (HRI). The completed shoreline was provided to Research Planning, Inc. (RPI), who integrated the biology and human-use data they collected. This portion was funded by NOAA. A similar funding approach was used for the last Florida atlases, as well. Both the Texas and Florida updates were much-needed, as the last round of ESI data for those regions was collected and published in the early to mid-1990’s.

The Louisiana ESI data will be undergoing a final review this month, and will hopefully be ready for posting sometime in February. Both the Texas and Louisiana projects included hard copy maps, so the traditional PDFs are (or in the case of Louisiana, will be) available for download.

Mapping of Delaware Bay began in early 2013. This work is nearly complete, so look for the data on the Downloads page early this spring!

Following Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy, Congress provided funding to several agencies for a variety of mapping efforts to ensure that accurate and current data are available to federal, state, and local authorities for preparedness and response activities in Sandy-affected areas. OR&R received funding for ESI mapping in areas ranging from Maine to South Carolina. ESI mapping for this region will include some additional features to increase the utility of the ESI data for other hazards, particularly coastal storms. We don’t want to lose focus on the traditional role of the ESIs for oil spill planning and response, but some data that might be particularly useful in storm-related emergencies could also benefit the original audience. Most of the enhancements will become part of the management or human-use data layers, and will include things such as storm surge inundation areas, evacuation routes, and additional jurisdictional boundaries.

We have been exploring how to better use some of the internal skills and knowledge of other NOAA offices, as well as working to increase capacity by linking to NOAA contracts that are currently in place for similar mapping efforts. Avoiding duplication is especially important with regard to the Sandy-related work, where multiple government agencies are working in the same area doing complementary projects. There is a government-wide committee tracking all the Sandy efforts and helping to bridge communications between offices that are working on similar projects.

The first Sandy-related ESI mapping has begun in Long Island Sound. For this effort we have partnered with NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Services (NCCOS) office for compilation of the biology and human-use data. The National Geodetic Survey (NGS) office is updating shoreline for the northern portion of the sound; their contractor, Woolpert, will be conducting the ESI shoreline classification. The next areas to be mapped will be Maine and South Carolina. We hope to have those contracts in place within the next 2 months.

Of course, Sandy work does not mean that other ESI mapping comes to an end! RPI is working on the other coast, mapping the outer shoreline of Washington and Oregon. ESI classification is already underway. Later this month, the biology and human-use data collection will gear up and by February and March, should be well underway. We anticipate completion of this work in late fall of this year. And, if the final budget allows, we hope to begin updating the Georgia ESI later this year.

So, you see, there may have been silence, but work did continue! 2014 looks like it will be even busier with lots of areas to be mapped, new features to include, and some new ways of doing things.

We’re looking forward to the challenges and anticipate a prosperous year ahead for ESIs. We wish you equal success!

Updated ESIs to Improve Disaster Response and Planning

In addition to causing devastating damage to manmade structures, the strong winds and waves of Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy caused considerable change to shorelines in the northeast, particularly in the metropolitan New York area, northern Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. In the wake of Sandy, under the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, funds were allocated to update OR&R’s existing northeast ESI maps to reflect changes caused by the storm and to add information that would enhance the maps’ value when another disaster strikes. You can read more about the ESI updates in this OR&R Blog post.


You can see representative coastal habitat in a large wildlife conservation area managed by Bass River State Forest at the north end of Brigantine Island, a popular beach destination located on the New Jersey coast. (NOAA)