A Search Engine for Landscapes
Imagine your neighborhood is a forested area with some housing developments and a little creek running by. In broader terms, this place is a mix of evergreen forest, medium intensity development and open water. While your town may be unique in its details, on a broader level it's similar to many other places.
A new search engine can help find those other places.
LandEx is a sort of search engine for maps that can scan through and identify places in the U.S. that have a similar land coverage or ecological patterns. Developed by University of Cincinnati Professor Tomasz Stepinski, the program classifies satellite imagery of the earth's surface into 16 different land cover types – from scrub to pasture to deciduous forest to high intensity development. The map enables users to select a small area, about two miles wide, and then searches the rest of the country for places with similar conditions.
Source: LandEx paper [PDF] by T.F. Stepinski, P. Netzel, J. Jasiewicz and J. Niesterowicz
Each category is represented by a different color. While some areas end up being only one of these categories, many look more like a mosaic of a number of them.
For example, this is an area in metropolitan Reno, Nevada. Its land coverage consists of a mostly low, medium and high-intensity development, pasture land, grassland, shrubs, water and some small patches of evergreen forest.
Through the website's comparison tools, a heat map of similarity is created based on selections like this. While there aren't many places across the country with exactly the conditions seen in this segment of Reno, there are many that share many similarities. Parts of nearby Carson City, Nevada, have upwards of 90 percent similarity, as do parts of Sacramento and Modesto in neighboring California. Parts of Phoenix have about 70 percent in common, and parts of the Dallas metro area are tipping into the 80s.
Some small parts of Sacramento in the upper right corner and the Oakland area in the lower left show the red markings of high similarities with the section of land in Reno. The yellow areas represent about 70 percent similarity while the green represents about 30 percent or less. Source: LandEx.
The idea behind the project is to help researchers better understand how different land coverage types affect and are affected by various environmental and developmental conditions. And according to the researchers, land cover is just the start.
"The general principle can be used to search and explore all spatial data including topographic data, climate data, soil data, ecosystems, and socio-economic data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau," Stepinski says. "The ultimate goal is to offer the user a total search for a sense of place."
Top image courtesy LandEx