Ben Waltenberger is a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) analyst at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS), based in Santa Barbara, California. His job title is Physical Scientist and he has varied responsibilities, but the bulk of his work focuses on GIS.
One of Waltenberger’s primary responsibilities is using GIS to compile a spatial database of the Sanctuary and the Santa Barbara Channel – including mapping the distribution of different organisms (particularly marine mammals) as well as the location of vessels. He does this during the Sanctuary’s routine aerial surveys of the region. In addition to entering visual observations on marine life and vessel traffic, he can tie in sea surface temperature data from satellites, thus developing an even more thorough picture of the overall ecosystem.
"There are both scientific and educational reasons for this work"
“There are both scientific and educational reasons for this work,” explains Waltenberger. “It helps us develop a better understanding of the Sanctuary’s ecosystem, but we also use the data to educate people about the geography and marine resources of the region.”
CINMS has developed a prototype application of GIS: tracking oil spills. In most cases, oil spill response teams use mathematical models (based on ocean currents and other factors) to predict where and how fast spilled oil will travel – but these models are not always accurate. In October 1998 the Sanctuary was able to use GIS to track a mystery oil spill. Waltenberger and his colleagues conducted regular (every couple of hours) aerial surveys, noting the location of the oil, the different types of oil (tar balls versus a light sheen on the surface, for example), and the location of marine mammals. They transferred the data instantaneously, via e-mail, from the plane to the mainland, thus providing more accurate data (than those based on models), more quickly, to the command center.
"I need to know a little about all the data I take in and process, so I can represent them correctly,"
Waltenberger is currently completing his studies towards an M.A. degree in geography, with a GIS/ remote sensing emphasis, at UC Santa Barbara. He thoroughly enjoys his work and plans to stay involved in marine-related GIS work. “There are lots of opportunities for someone with GIS skills,” he explains.
According to Waltenberger, the most important skill in working with GIS is to be good with computers – to understand Windows and UNIX really well, for example. “That’s the most job-specific function,” he notes. He goes on to explain that ‘a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things’ is also important. “I need to know a little about all the data I take in and process, so I can represent them correctly,” he says. “For example, I have to know coordinate systems and how the data were projected; they also have to be displayed correctly and in an intuitive way, so that people can understand and learn from them.”
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