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Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
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What are Geographic Information Systems and how can I work with them?

A GIS map depicting coastal hazards in New Hanover, North Carolina.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are a set of computer-based tools that are used to manage, manipulate, analyze, and visualize databases that are linked to digital maps. All of the social or environmental data that are stored in the database have coordinates associated with them so that each record can be given a position on a specific model of the planet earth, and therefore on a map. Thus, one can relatively quickly combine and analyze multiple social and environmental factors that are significant to a particular place, and then display these factors on a map.

The real power of GIS is its ability to analyze spatial relationships and model social and environmental systems. GIS allows coastal managers, policy analysts, natural scientists, designers, social scientists, and planners to better understand problems and identify opportunities. GIS also allows us to relatively easily make maps that help us to understand the problems we face when managing our oceans and coastal areas. These maps can be printed or published online for easy dissemination within an organization or to the public. The use of GIS is expanding, and knowledge of GIS is often a requirement - or at least and advantage - for job applicants in the marine affairs field.

Over the years, GIS has come to play a large role in coastal and marine management. For example, GIS is being used to: study the vulnerability of communities to coastal hazards; plan eelgrass restorations; understand non-point source pollution; help manage marine protected areas; and track potential conflicts between sea mammals and human maritime activities. Recently, a great deal of support has developed for using marine and coastal spatial planning (MCSP) to manage our oceans and coastal regions. GIS is the central tool utilized in MCSP, so to really understand MCSP, you need to understand GIS. GIS is used in many marine affairs settings, including non-profits, government agencies, consulting firms, and others.