G-I-Yes! Musings Among two Geographers on GIS Day

by Erica Simek Sloniker, GIS and Visual Communications and Jamie Robertson, Spatial Analyst

What low laying areas in this valley will flood during the next big storm? How many acres of Cascade forests need to be restored in order to prevent big, catastrophic wildfires? Where are the best elk migration corridors in our state?

These questions, and many more, can be answered using geographic informative systems (GIS). GIS is a computer system capable of holding and using data describing places on earth’s surface. It is a powerful tool that allows us to look at the relationships of features on the landscape. With that knowledge, we can make informed decisions about the places and things we care about. Cool! Companies like Google and Microsoft have harnessed the power of GIS in tools like Google Earth, Google Maps, and Bing Maps. Federal and state agencies use GIS to catalog and analyze information from natural resources to census track data. And non-profits, like The Nature Conservancy, use GIS to help solve the toughest environmental questions of the day.

In celebration of GIS Day, November 16th, a day that celebrates the real-world applications of GIS that are making a difference in our society, two GIS professionals from our office sat down for a question and answer session to talk maps and data and to share geography stories. They invite us all to become map lovers!

Q: What is a favorite GIS project you’ve worked on recently?

A (Jamie): An advantage to being a geographer at The Nature Conservancy is that we get to work on so many really cool projects!  I’m really excited about stormwater modeling, mapping fire severity throughout the Pacific Northwest, producing numbers to help finance a timber mill project, and modelling coastal vulnerability. And, there are many things I’m leaving out. It’s like winning an Oscar and having to thank everyone I work with on these projects!

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A (Erica): I am a big fan of many past and current cartographers who focus their craft on shaded relief. Shaded relief is a method for representing the peaks and valleys on maps in a natural, aesthetic, and intuitive manner. I also admire people who create infographics with their maps and people who map new and interesting topics.

Q: First mapping memory?

A (Jamie): In grad school, I was contracted by a land owner to map a forest being used for recreation and sustainable forestry in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.  I actually got paid to hike the trails and collect coordinates of all the infrastructure and points of interest!  The deliverable was a poster size map, which (looking back) ended up being one of the ugliest maps I’ve ever seen.  

Q: What books would you recommend for the map enthusiast?

A (Erica): Maphead by Ken Jennings (non-fiction)

A (Jamie): The Mapmakers by John Noble Wilford (non-fiction/history).

Q: How many states/countries have you stepped foot in?

A (Erica): I’ve been to 23 states and 6 countries (Canada, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Peru, and U.S.)

A (Jamie): All states except LA, MS, Al, AK, and HI.  I’ve stepped foot in Chile, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Spain, Sweden, Scotland/UK, Canada, South Africa, and China/Tibet, and the U.S., so 12 countries.

Q: What is one place you’ve mapped that you really want to go to!?

A (Jamie): Out of grad school I got a job as a GIS analyst with the National Zoo’s Conservation Research Center in Virginia. They do a lot of work in southeast Asia, and one of my big projects was mapping deforestation in Asian elephant habitat and ranges.  I was particularly fascinated by the Upper Brahmaputra River Valley but never had an opportunity to go.  The way the river braids and changes from year to year in the Assam area is incredible to witness via satellite imagery, but the upland forests neighboring Bhutan and Myanmar and the highlands leading towards China are what really appeal tome.  Maybe someday!

Q: What are you looking forward to as a GIS professional?

A (Jamie): One fundamental thing that a GIS professional can always look forward to is discovery. Although much of the world has been mapped and the entire world is being touched in some way by humans, our senses of place and our understanding of relationships among people and nature provide an infinite world of exploration.  Sounds cheesy, but I genuinely feel this way about my work.

Q: What is the power of maps?

A (Erica): Maps and spatial analysis are amazing tools at understanding our world. Not only do they communicate, explain, and reveal information, but most of us remember more through visual learning! The Nature Conservancy uses maps and spatial analysis in just about every conservation project we work on. They are powerful in answering the most pressing environmental questions of the day, which lead to positive conservation impact for both people and nature.

Explore our Maps and Infographics 

Maps are our DNA

Maps by Erica Simek Sloniker, GIS & Visual Communications
Written by Julie Morse, Regional Ecologist

Here at The Nature Conservancy, we love maps.  So much so, that one of the best features of our new office is a big beautiful conference table made of reclaimed 100 year old fir timbers and recycled steel beams from the building.  And welded into the steel beams table legs are perfect cubby holes, just for maps.   While admittedly we don’t use big paper maps like we used to, they still seem to be infused in our culture and even made their way into the design of our new office.

Maps help us tell a story.  They help us see the story.  They guide us to the story.  Maps help us interpret the story.  

These new climate maps illustrate just how powerful maps can be in helping us tell a story about how climate change will impact Puget Sound.  While we know climate change will affect all of us, these maps help us get smarter and sharper about where and when impacts will be the greatest.   They help us plan accordingly and make smarter decisions.

Unfortunately, these maps don’t give us a crystal ball into the future.  They can’t tell us exactly where abig flood in 10 years will be, and how deep the waters will get.  They don’t tell us how many salmon will survive warmer waters and lower flows during a summer drought 30 years from now.   But they do help inform our conversations with agencies, in for example, moving towards better regulations that addresssea level rise.  They do catalyze conversations with local communities who are grappling with the magnitude of change in water availability or increasing flood risk.  

These maps are our bread and butter.  Conversation starters. And insights into stories of our future.  


Our Role from Land to Sea - and How I Make it Look Good

Written and Created by Erica Simek Sloniker, GIS & Visual Communications Specialist

How many times have you heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”?

Scientific research can back this up and has shown that humans process visual information much more rapidly than pure text. It is no surprise then that infographics that combine art with science are helping present data and scientific concepts in memorable and easy to understand ways.

I make maps and illustrations for The Nature Conservancy. Let me introduce you to my most recent creation, an illustration about The Nature Conservancy’s marine conservation goals. In this slideshow, I will take you step-by-step through the artistic and conceptual decisions made in its creation in order to leave you with a better understanding of the drivers behind our marine conservation program.

Find out how this infographic was made in the interactive slideshow above!

Support Our Work


Washington snowpack smallest in 35 years

This year our state is facing a big water challenge

Inforgraphics and Written by Erica Simek Sloniker, GIS and Visual Communications & James Robertson, Spatial Analyst
Photograph by Karl Johnson

In Washington, the majority of our water supply arrives in the form of snow. Snowpack provides a reliable water supply for the needs most of us enjoy as well as the habitats we explore in. Looking back over the last 35 years, Washington is experiencing its lowest snowpack.

Water levels this year give us a window into the future, of what we can expect and plan for with a changing climate. The drought affects everything we do in conserving Washington from increasing wildfire risk, to low stream flows which can dramatically affect salmon survival. The drought also increases wildfire risk, which is already severely high on the east side of the Cascades, but also makes potential for wildfire on the west side of the Cascades a reality as well.

This year’s drought presents an opportunity to teach us how to be more resilient when our natural resources become stressed. The Nature Conservancy is committed to finding long-term solutions to weather the impacts of climate change. Across the organization, The Nature Conservancy is conserving forests which store carbon, hold water, and cool streams, is working to protect communities from storms and floods, and is helping landscapes and people become better adapted to fire risks.