Evolution of the ESI Map

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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.

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!

Announcing ESI Data Online!

UPDATED AUGUST 31, 2016 — Several ESI online viewing systems have been discontinued due to reorganization of the offices that support them. We are working to build similar functionality into our online mapping tool, ERMA®; however, it will take some time to complete that work. As an alternative to online viewing of ESI data, you can download the data from our ESI Downloads page. As our ESI data are updated, they will be published there. Please let us know if you have questions.


Thanks to NOAA’s Special Projects office (SPO), in particular Nipa Parikh, Robb Wright, and Robby Wilson, NOAA’s online ESI Data Viewer is ready to launch. For the past several months, this group has coordinated with the ESI team to provide a user-friendly, online interface, enabling viewing and simple querying of the ESI GIS data layers, as well as viewing and download of individual ESI PDF maps. The area covered includes all but three of the ESI atlases (which will be added soon), representing the majority of the contiguous U.S. coastline, Alaska, Hawaii, and the U.S. territories. It’s been a BIG job, and we’re excited to roll it out!

The project is comprised of three distinct services: the ESI Data Viewer; an online viewing option for the Threatened and Endangered Species databases; and the National ESI Shoreline. We encourage you to test the features of these services (currently in beta version) and provide your feedback.

ESI Data Viewer

The new Environmental Sensitivity Index Data Viewer allows you to pick your region of interest, divided up by ESI atlas boundaries, and turn on individual ESI layers to query.

Screenshot of the Environmental Sensitivity Index Data Viewer, showing a section of Mobile, Alabama.

In the screenshot of the Mobile, Alabama area, seen above, the following layers are turned on: birds, ESI lines, and the map index. These layers are displayed on top of the ArcGIS Topographic basemap; you can select from a variety of ArcGIS Basemaps using the drop-down list in the upper right corner of the map. The NOAA Raster Navigational Charts and, in some areas, the tiled ESI PDF maps are also options for backdrops; these can be selected at the top of the Layer Selection panel, located to the left of the map.

In this example, a bird polygon has been selected, as well as the index map polygon in which it lies. The selected bird polygon is shown as a solid red map object; the selected index polygon has a transparent yellow hue, and is outlined in red. A pop-up window provides some information about the index polygon, and includes a link to the corresponding ESI PDF. The bird species found within the selected polygon are listed in the right panel. In this list, clicking the plus sign next to one of the species’ common names will provide additional information about that species, particular to the polygon selected. Above, you see the details for the Osprey. Its genus/species is Pandion haliaetus, it is State protected (the State/Federal designation, S_F, is “S” for state; the Threatened/Endangered designation, T_E, is “P” for protected*), and it is present in the area year round (Jan-Dec). Clicking the plus sign next to Sources, you learn that the source of the data was Mark Vanhoose at Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (AL DCNR). Any attributes associated with the ESI Base Layers listed in the top section of the left panel, will be shown using the pop-up window. The attributes of layers listed under the header, ESI Relate Layers, will be shown in the right panel, as in the above example for the bird layer. Only one of the Relate Layers can be shown at any given time.

Threatened and Endangered Species databases

The second product developed in this effort is an online viewing option for the Threatened and Endangered Species databases. (A recent blog post provides more information about these databases.)

Screenshot of the Threatened and Endangered Species geodatabase, showing the location of several threatened/endangered species in Alabama.

The screenshot above shows the location of several threatened/endangered species in Alabama: the Mississippi sandhill crane, the Bald eagle, and the Gulf salt marsh snake. In this example, the ArcGIS imagery basemap is used but, as in the ESI Data Viewer, you can select the ArcGIS basemap of your choice. If pop-up windows are enabled for the layer, clicking on a species polygon will show a window with details of the species in that area. In this case, the selected Bald eagle polygon, highlighted in blue, represents an area where the eagle is present year round (Jan-Dec) and is nesting December through May. You can also see that this species was listed as State protected (S_F shows “S” for state; T_E shows “P” for protected) in 2007, the year the atlas was published. It’s important to remember that protection status is not static, and that the ESI data are a snapshot in time. The status shown reflects the listing status at the time of the atlas publication.

National ESI Shoreline

Our third new online product is the National ESI Shoreline. The shorelines from approximately 45 ESI atlases were merged to create this seamless, attributed shoreline. The shoreline has four display options:

  • National ESI Shoreline is a simple black line presentation of the ESI shoreline, showing the land/water interface.
  • National ESI Shoreline – Cartographic displays a shoreline symbolized by ESI value. In cases where there are multiple ESI types occuring within a shoreline segment, multi-colored lines are used to represent each ESI type present. For example, for a shoreline segment with the ESI value of 1B/3A, the landward shoreline color will be purple, representing type 1B (exposed, solid man-made structures), and the seaward color will be blue, representing type 3A (fine- to medium-grained sand beaches).
  • National ESI Shoreline – Most Sensitive is a shoreline symbolized by a single colored line, based on the most sensitive ESI type present. Since increased sensitivity to oiling is indicated by higher numeric values in the ESI field, a shoreline with an attribute of 1B/3A/9A would have a “most sensitive” value of 9A (sheltered tidal flats), and be shown on the map as an orange line.
  • National ESI Shoreline – Aggregate is a shoreline symbolized using a simplified shoreline classification scheme. Values range from 1 to 5. As an example, ESI types 1A (Exposed rocky shores), 2A (Exposed, wave-cut platforms in bedrock, mud or clay), 3C (Tundra cliffs), and 8A (Sheltered rocky shores), among other types, are all condensed to a more general category, 1 – “Armored,” and symbolized by a purple line. The other general shoreline types are: 2 – “Rocky and steep shorelines (rock, sand or clay),” 3 – “Beaches (sand or gravel),” 4 – “Flats (mud or sand),” and 5 – “Vegetated (grass/marsh/mangroves/scrub-shrub).” All ESI values have been mapped to the appropriate “general” field for this presentation. The symbolization is based on the highest numeric general ESI type present in the segment.

If pop-up windows are enabled, you can select a shoreline segment to see the ESI rank and description, as well as the generalized classification and description. Below you can see an example of the cartographic presentation along with the shoreline pop-up box.

Screenshot of the National ESI Shoreline, showing the ESI rank for a section of shoreline in Alabama.

All of the data used in the online data products are also available as a map service. This means you can bring the data into your own ArcMap session and offers an alternative to downloading the dataset to your computer. This is particularly useful if you want a quick look at the data in reference to other items on your map. For more in-depth viewing and analysis, it may still be appropriate to download the ESI data from the ESI downloads page, where you can get the geodatabase and a supporting map document for the atlas of your choice.

So, take the new products for a spin! Be sure to let us know of any problems you experience, or any suggestions or ideas for future development! And thank you again to Nipa, Robb and Robby. It has been a pleasure working with all of you!


*The Data Viewer’s online help section (available via a Help button in the upper right corner of the window) provides an overview of the application’s features, and information about how to navigate within the program. We will soon be expanding the help section to include detailed explanation of the feature layer names and the attribute headers and values. [Back to text]

PDF Maps for the Florida Panhandle

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and NOAA OR&R recently took delivery of the digital Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) data for the Panhandle of Florida. Unlike most ESI projects, hard copy and PDF maps were not part of the contractor’s deliverable. Instead, all contract funding was focused on the actual acquisition, collection, and synthesis of the ESI data.

Though we seem to be transitioning to a largely “digital world,” PDF/printable maps are still the format of choice for many. To try to meet the needs of that user group, we used the ArcMap Seasonal Summary tool, in conjunction with some supporting Python scripts, to develop a PDF ESI atlas project for the Panhandle, similar to what we have published for other areas. Check out the new Florida Panhandle PDF maps on our ESI Downloads page.

The New ESI Product

Although the new “on the fly” maps created with the Seasonal Summary tool are similar to OR&R’s existing PDF maps, there are some subtle differences. The new maps show the ESI shoreline and polygons, and the “back of the map” summarizes the biological, human-use, and shoreline resources found in the area; however, these maps are less complex than their predecessors, and locational information less refined.

Sample ESI map page, showing Map 10 (Eglin Air Force Base) of the Florida Panhandle ESI maps.
Sample ESI map page

One of the outcomes of last year’s ESI user survey and Workshop were many good presentation suggestions, based on some examples of a simplified ESI map. Workshop participants recommended that we include a locator map and some coordinate reference marks, both of which have been integrated into the current map layout. The participants also had suggestions about the resource summaries, with the majority of them preferring the traditional layout, particularly for the seasonality. Those suggestions were also taken into consideration when designing the “back of the map.”

Sample ESI 'back of the map,' showing the seasonal presence of biological resources for Map 10 (Eglin Air Force Base) of the Florida Panhandle ESI maps.
Sample of biology summary—the “back of the map”

A new feature on these maps is a summary of the shoreline resources. The summary provides the length of shoreline on the map, as well as the length and percentage of each shoreline type. Of course, the length measurements are influenced by the scale of the underlying data, so the numbers may seem larger than what you would expect to see if all the “ins and outs” of the shoreline were ignored. The percentage of each shoreline type present is relatively independent of the mapping scale.

Sample summary of shoreline resources, showing the length of shoreline on the map, as well as the length and percentage of each shoreline type, for Map 10 (Eglin Air Force Base) of the Florida Panhandle ESI maps.
Sample summary of shoreline resources

Next Up

The State of Florida has been hard at work extending the functionality and data content of their Florida Marine Spill Analysis System (FMSAS), in which ESIs play a crucial role. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, they will be willing to post on this blog about some of this work. I will also try to find some time to write up a brief description of the Seasonal Summary/“Maps on the Fly” tool—its functionality and limitations—and how it might work for you!