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 ORR.ESI@noaa.gov.

Hitting the Road for the South Florida ESI Review


Before NOAA OR&R releases a new Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) atlas, it provides a rigorous review and testing of the data. It’s particularly important to review the draft product with key data providers to insure that the resources mapped are as accurate as possible within the ESI product. Biologists at our contract partner, Research Planning, Inc. (RPI), recently conducted a “road trip review” of the ESI data for South Florida. Jen Weaver, a biologist for RPI, provides an overview of that adventure. Thanks, Jen.


                                       Manatee sampling red mangrove leaves.                                             Source: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). Photo: John Parker.


Chris Boring and I, from RPI, and Richard Knudsen, from Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI), recently traveled through South Florida to review the draft ESI data for that region. It was a busy week – in 5 days, we drove 1,000 miles and met with state, federal and NGO scientists! The draft product was well-received by all and the comments we received were really helpful. RPI conducted a digital only review for the two draft Florida ESI products (Panhandle and South Florida) with data providers throughout the state. Participants were willing and able to successfully review the draft ESIs in this format without the use of draft hardcopy ESI maps.

Among the state and federal agencies and NGOs we consulted, and who provided input or data to the new product, were:

The staff at the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center was particularly excited to see their data used in a new and interesting way. There was interest from our data providers in making this a dynamic product and being able to access the data using a Web service. Just a few more great ideas for the future of ESIs!


Zeroing in on Threatened and Endangered Species

I’m happy to announce a new ESI product – the Threatened and Endangered (T&E) Species Geodatabases!  The T&E geodatabases comprise a subset of the original ESI data, focusing on the coastal species and habitats that are federally and/or state listed as endangered, threatened, protected, or as a species of concern. The complexity of ESI data can make it difficult for those who use the data intermittently to quickly extract the information they need. These T&E databases will offer a more user-friendly option to access some of the most critical biological information for a region.

The geodatabases are offered on our ESI Downloads page, but read on to learn more about them.

The T&E data are provided in a personal geodatabase format (.mdb). In addition, a map document (.mxd) and separate layer files are available. These replicate the standard ESI symbology and contain links to the supplemental data tables. Each geodatabase corresponds in coverage to an original ESI atlas and contains individual species layers (feature classes), along with the land/water interface (hydro layer) for geographic reference.


Some T&E species found in the Great South Bay of Long Island Sound

For each atlas, a map document (.mxd) has been created to incorporate all of the T&E species data. These documents, for use in Esri’s ArcMap software, use all of the standard ESI colors and hatch patterns. In the above example, you see Great South Bay from the Long Island ESI atlas. Polygons indicate where several threatened or endangered species occur in June, and are symbolized as shown below.


Sample legend for map above

The table of contents, shown above on the left side of the map, lists all the T&E species found in the Long Island atlas. At the top of the list, in bold, is the data frame name: Long Island T&E Species – 2009. Because the listing status is dynamic, each map document and data frame name includes the year of the atlas publication. As always, it is important to remember that the ESI data are a “snapshot in time.” The publication year is also included in each record of the feature attribute table, as shown below.


Sample feature attribute tables for two of the T&E species layers

The feature attribute tables include all of the basic information associated with each polygon, point, or line. The tables include fields for subelement (an ESI grouping of species with similar habitat preferences and feeding styles), common name, genus and species, threatened and endangered status, atlas publication date, concentration, seasonal presence, and life history summaries. There are also “month” fields, to simplify searching for presence of a species in a particular month or season.

Three related tables are available if more information is desired. These are the sources table, the breed_dt table, and the ThreatenedEndangered table. These provide search capability  within a species for monthly breeding activities and  information about the original data source.

Aside from viewing these data in the “canned” ArcMap T&E documents, they can easily be brought into existing map projects. Layer files are available that include the symbology, as well as links to the three supplementary tables if they are added to the ArcMap data frame. In the near future, these data will also be available within NOAA’s online mapping tool, ERMA, and as a separate map service. These additional products will bring ESI data to many users who lack access to Esri’s ArcMap.

If you have any questions about the new geodatabases, please contact us or post a comment if you think it may be of interest to others.

On the topic of comments, I want to thank all of you who wrote publicly or privately about the utility of the new ESI blog. I appreciate your feedback and am pleased to hear that we have an enthusiastic group looking forward to sharing information and ideas. So you know, due to personnel leave schedules, there may be a delay in the posting and response to any comments submitted over the next several days. I appreciate your understanding and look forward to hearing your thoughts on this new product and/or anything ESI!

Happy New Year to all!

Jill Petersen