UNEP/GRID-Sioux Falls

UNEP/GRID 1998 Annual Report



The Year in Review

Reports, Projects and Meetings

ISO/FGDC Clearing House Development and Implemation for UNEP Data


Visiting Scientists


The North American node of the United Nations Environment Programme's Global Resources Information Database, UNEP/GRID-Sioux Falls, located at the EROS Data Center (EDC), has been operational since 1991 as a partnership between UNEP, the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Beginning in 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) also joined the partnership for the next five years. UNEP/GRID-Sioux Falls serves as a window for the United Nations community into the activities of its North American partner organizations particularly related to information technology tools for environmental solutions. Through a worldwide network of collaborating centers, UNEP/GRID facilitates the assembly, integration, and visualization of environmental data sets to provide a scientific basis for decision making.

The Year in Review

The following are highlights of activities carried out and accomplishments during the year.

Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)

An agreement for the operation of UNEP/GRID-Sioux Falls was signed between UNEP, NASA, USGS, USFS, and US EPA for the next five years (1998-2002).

Advisory Committee Meetings

The activities of UNEP/GRID-Sioux Falls are guided by an Advisory Committee with membership from several U.S. federal agencies, representatives from Mexican and Canadian agencies, academic institutions, scientific bodies, NGOs, UNEP, and UNDP.

The 11th meeting was held in Washington, D.C., and hosted by the U.S. State Department. The 12th meeting was held in Sioux Falls and hosted by the EROS Data Center. The following members and invitees attended the meetings:

    John R. Townshend (Chair), University of Maryland
    Peter S. Thacher, Earth Council Foundation-US
    Carmen Reyes, UNAM, Mexico
    Donald Lauer, EDC, USGS
    June Thormodsgard, EDC, USGS
    Martha Maiden, NASA
    Matthew Schwaller, NASA
    Kamlesh Lulla, NASA
    Tom Brennan, U.S. Department of State
    Kirk Lindly, U.S. Department of State
    Eileen Kane, U.S. Department of State
    Bill Wood, U.S. Department of State
    Chuck Dull, USFS
    Gerald S. Barton, NOAA
    Janice Sessing, NOAA
    Amy Fraenkel, US EPA
    D. Wayne Mooneyhan, Universities Space Research Association
    Dan Claasen, UNEP, Nairobi
    Joanne Fox-Przeworski, UNEP, New York
    Cynthia Cluck, USGS
    Thomas Cline, USGS
    Ashbindu Singh, Secretary

Reports, Projects, and Meetings

Land Form, Land Cover and Crop Use Intensity Mapping for Agriculture Rehabilitation and Food Security in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), with an area of approximately 122,370 km2, has been severely affected by three consecutive years of severe weather, including floods in 1995 and 1996, plus a drought and typhoon in 1997. In February 1998, at the request of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UNEP/GRID-Sioux Falls initiated a landform, land cover and crop use intensity mapping project to develop baseline information for assessing the impact of these disasters and support agricultural rehabilitation and food security issues. A series of maps and a digital database were created to describe the intensity of cropping, general land cover, and landforms throughout the DPRK. For some targeted areas, the best available satellite images were used in a change analysis. The whole project was completed in three months time, which, by any standard, was a massive undertaking. The results and maps have been used by UNDP, FAO, and the World Food Program (WFP) to attract investments for agriculture rehabilitation and food security by the donor community in DPRK.

Early Warning of Selected Emerging Environmental Issues in Africa

This study of the world's second largest continent, Africa, focuses on assessing the state of the interconnected nature of population dynamics, land cover distribution, protected areas, and transboundary water resources. By placing human beings at the heart of the environmental protection process, the regional case studies in this report concentrate on identifying some of the emerging environmental issues by critically examining problems over larger areas and by assessing cumulative impacts on natural resources. This type of information can assist policy makers in setting priorities and taking preventive measures. An attempt has also been made to quantify the magnitude of the transboundary nature of river basins as well as protected areas that transcend national boundaries.

One of the main objectives of this analysis is to provide concise, policy-relevant, and credible information about the terrestrial environment of Africa by applying the latest technologies and scientific methodologies. An important feature of this study is the use of globally-consistent and comprehensive geospatial data sets developed by UNEP and its collaborating agencies using remote sensing and other sources. Geographic Information System (GIS) tools have been utilized for analysis, integration, and visualization of results; and for identifying areas at risk or vulnerable otherwise to adverse population-environment-development interactions. Maps and graphs have been used as the primary means of presenting the factual and quantitative data for informing and educating policy makers. Furthermore, baseline information is provided for measuring changes in the environment

Major Findings of the Study:

  • The geographic distribution of population in Africa is highly uneven. The most dramatic population changes are occurring around Nigeria and the Great Lakes region of Africa. Continued rapid growth would significantly impact the environmental conditions of these areas and neighboring regions.

  • About 11 percent of the African coastal areas (using a 100-km. buffer) presently supports nearly 28 percent of the population. Population density is relatively low in most of the region, except around a network of large coastal cities. Coastal areas have registered an increase in population in the same proportion as the rest of the continent. The lack of apparent migration toward the coastal areas is an indication that subsistence agriculture continues to be the mainstay of the African people. The coastal regions of Africa, barring some local exceptions, do not seem to be experiencing the same level of growth as coastal areas in other regions of the world. However, as the market-based economy expands, the existing conditions are likely to undergo a radical change bringing coastal areas face-to-face with a new set of environmentally stressful conditions.

  • About 9 percent of the land under forest cover sustains approximately 10 percent of Africa's population. While 5 percent of forested regions have a high population density, the majority of the people in Africa, 60 percent, live in and around the savannas and grasslands. Increases in population may translate into increasing pressures on land cover; which has social, economic, and ecological consequences. The presence of a sizable population and its rapid growth in and around forested areas are likely to result in further degradation of such lands. The fast dwindling nature of the resources leaves the growing population highly vulnerable, as these resources are vital for their survival.

  • About 16 percent of Africa's population lives within 20 km. of designated protected areas. The population growth during the period 1960-1990 within these buffer zones was higher than outside the buffer areas. This trend could potentially threaten the resources of such areas.

  • Protected areas in Africa account for nearly 7 percent of the continent's 30 million km2. Alarmingly, however, only 6 percent of natural tropical forests rich in biodiversity are accorded protection status. The lack of protection status and the relatively ineffective implementation of protection measures in the designated protected areas pose serious threats to forest biodiversity.

  • Low population densities in many natural forested areas of high biodiversity provide an opportunity for the protection and conservation of such areas.

  • About 63 percent of the total land in Africa lies within transboundary river basins. This unique phenomenon heavily influences Africa's political geography. The growing scarcity of water, increasing population, degradation of shared freshwater ecosystems, and competing demand for shrinking natural resources distributed over such a huge area involving so many countries have the potential for creating bilateral and multilateral conflicts.

  • Five major river basins, the Congo, Nile, Niger, Chad, and Zambezi, occupy about 42 percent of the geographical area and sustain over 44 percent of the African population. The high population growth rate and rather low protection status of natural forests of high biodiversity in the Congo Basin are indicators of emerging environmental problems of global significance.

  • A low percentage of forest cover and high density of population distribution around Lake Victoria are indicators of increasing pressure on the lake's ecosystem.

  • An overwhelming majority of African countries, 33 of them, share 189 protected areas along their national borders. The migratory nature of animals and declining populations in game reserves and national parks could result in loss of tourism revenues. There are also growing requirements for implementing the provisions of the environmental conventions. In light of such developments, transboundary protected areas could be a source of potential tension between the concerned parties.

In conclusion, this study, with the application of the modern information technology tools and consistent data sets, has made it possible to identify and quantify selected emerging environmental issues requiring national and international attention.

The study and report were done in cooperation between UNEP, NASA, USFS, USGS, and partially funded by the Government of Japan.

Wild Fires and Environment: A Global Synthesis

During 1997 and 1998, relatively small-scale, human-initiated fires for land clearing and land-use changed quickly developed into large-scale and widespread uncontrolled fires. These fires occurred in Southeast Asia, South America, Central America, Mexico, Africa, Europe, Russia, China, and the United States. These uncontrolled and widespread wildfires were a consequence of extreme drought conditions brought about by the 1997 El Nino. On a daily basis, these wildfires were reported on the front pages of the world's newspapers and nightly on television and radio throughout the world. Internet web sites worldwide reported on the daily and, in some cases, the hourly progress of these wildfires.

The extensive and widespread wildfires of 1997 and 1998 made the world aware of the environmental and human health impacts associated with these fires. In Southeast Asia alone, tens of millions of people were exposed to high levels of fire-produced gases and particulates for weeks at a time. The poor atmospheric visibility resulting from these fires was responsible for the crash of a commercial airplane and the collision of two ships at sea in Southeast Asia. In general, the countries of the world were not prepared to react to these fires. Fire monitoring systems and air quality monitoring systems were not providing the needed information to government officials in time needed for decision making. The wildfires of 1997 and 1998 were a learning experience for many environmental managers. Even before the appearance of humans on our planet, natural fire, induced by atmospheric lightning, has been a process of disturbance. Fire is a vital and important process that initiates natural cycles of vegetation succession and maintains ecosystem viability. Particularly in the tropics, but also elsewhere, human-initiated fire has become an important and widespread tool for land clearing and land-use change. Fires initiated by human activities (which may account for as much as 90% of all fires) can have a negative impact on the composition and chemistry of the regional and global atmosphere, on the climate of our planet, and on human health.

Fires are a significant source of gases and particulates to the regional and global atmosphere. Environmentally important gases produced by fire include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, non-methane hydrocarbons, and oxides of nitrogen. Carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. Methane, carbon monoxide, non-methane hydrocarbons, and oxides of nitrogen are chemically active gases, which lead to the photochemical production of ozone near the ground. Ozone is another greenhouse gas. At enhanced levels, ground-level ozone is an irritant and pollutant and has a negative impact on all living systems, including humans. Fire also produces large amounts of particulate matter, small solid particles. The fire-produced particulate matter absorbs and scatters incoming solar radiation; and, hence, impacts the climate of our planet. In addition, smoke particulates smaller than about 2.5 micrometers can easily enter the human respiratory system leading to health problems.

The Wildland Fires and the Environment: A Global Synthesis report was prepared in cooperation with UNEP/GRID-Geneva, NASA, USFS, and USGS to better inform decision makers about fires, their environmental and health risks, and the technology available to monitor fires in the future.

UNEP Meeting on Early Warning of Emerging Environmental Threats

December 8, 1998, Washington, D.C.

One of the outcomes of the United Nations reform process is to streamline global environmental policy development and environmental information management issues in a coordinated manner.

As per recommendations of the recent report of the UN Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements, June 15, 1998, UNEP is in the process of developing suitable mechanisms for early warning of significant environmental problems which could result in human or environmental disasters and emergencies requiring international action. As a result, the UNEP's Division of Environmental Information, Assessment and Early Warning - North America organized a meeting of experts from the region for developing guidance for possible UNEP strategies in this field. The meeting as chaired by Professor Mario Molina, the Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, and attended by over 25 participants from U.S. and Canadian foundations, academies, institutions, and the private sector.

The meeting was designed to elicit suggestions on what contributions North Americans might make to UNEP's Early Warning program. It was pointed out that early warning was highlighted in the Nairobi Declaration and the Secretary General's UN reform proposal. UNEP's Executive Director's intention was to mobilize UNEP to carry out the new mandate and to: (1) be able to anticipate and respond immediately and authoritatively to current environmental issues, and (2) over a longer term, alert the world community and the Governing Council to upcoming threats so they could address them appropriately.

Participants expressed strong interest in and support for UNEP's early warning initiative. They said there was a real need for catalyzing and coordinating international efforts along these lines and they thought that they could make a contribution to UNEP's work. The effort could link a wide range of information networks around the world, give focus to scientific concerns, involve the private sector, and help build capacity for information exchange in developing countries. There was an interesting discussion around the concept of a trip-wire network that is designated to go off when certain criteria are met or violated. As such, it is not necessary to know what has caused the trip-wire to activate. When the trip-wire fires, resources could be rallied to look into the causes and find the remedies.

All participants agreed that the diminishing quantity and quality of the world's freshwater resources were urgent problems requiring international attention. Professor Molina spoke out on the need to alert the world to new changes taking place in the lower atmosphere due to combustion of fossil fuels and biomass burning. Others indicated that sustainable health of human and ecosystem, forest fragmentation, toxic wastes, misguided land use, climate change, and signs of urban environmental deterioration should be addressed.

They felt that UNEP highlighting urgent and longer-term problems would be a valuable service to the international community. The information could be provided in a number of ways - announcements by the Executive Director, periodic action-oriented UNEP reports, and publications.

Several participants suggested the UNEP should see itself and perform more as an action-oriented educator that would identify issues, publicize them internationally, and inspire governments and others to take action on them. UNEP could publicize them and bring them to the attention of the public, governments, and the Governing Council. UNEP would encourage other UN agencies, governments, the scientific community, and the private sector to collaborate in this work. It would convene scientific panels and other gatherings to perfect the data and draw conclusions about actions. But UNEP should be wary of trying to be a major data collector itself, although it could encourage coordination and collaboration by others in the collection effort. UNEP's focus would be on calling attention to urgent matters, seeking solutions, and promoting international action to address the early warning issues identified.

Other Analytical Studies

Three analytical studies that were also completed during 1998 include:

  • Biodiversity-Rich Ecoregions in Africa Need Protection,
  • Status and Trends in Spatial Data Handling Software 1997, and
  • Methodology for Forest Fire Potential, Detection, and Monitoring - Global Forest Fires Watch.

ISO/FGDC Clearinghouse Development and Implementation for UNEP Data

A proposal "ISO/FGDC Clearinghouse Development and Implementation for UNEP Data" was funded by the U.S. National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI). The NSDI Funding Programs were established by the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) to help form partnerships among organizations that will assist in the evolution of the NSDI. The goal is to encourage resource-sharing projects through the use of technology, networking, and more efficient interagency coordination.

The main components of the proposal include:

  1. establishment of a National Geospatial Data Clearinghouse node to provide public access to UNEP datasets, as well as metadata converted from the UNEP metadata standard,

  2. enhancement of the PC MetaLite software, developed by USGS and UNEP, to conform and produce ISO compliant metadata, and

  3. development of ISO metadata on the UNEP/GRID clearinghouse to prototype the transition of an NSDI clearinghouse node to an ISO compliant clearinghouse node.

UNEP/GRID Sioux Falls staff have undertaken the following activities of the proposal:

  1. Installed and tested the ISITE clearinghouse software on a newly purchased UNIX system.

  2. A first draft of FGDC metadata has been developed for the datasets housed on the UNEP/GRID website.

  3. Implemented the first draft of metadata with the ISITE clearinghouse software and tested the search engine functionality.

  4. New website pages have been designed to provide a more consistent and efficient interface to the datasets and metadata of the UNEP/GRID website.

UNEP/GRID-Sioux Falls is pioneering the use of such cutting-edge information technology tools for dissemination of environmental data and information within the United Nations system in partnership with the private sector.

Core Data Sets and Data Dissemination

UNEP/GRID-Sioux Falls created the first World Wide Web (WWW) site within UNEP related to the Indonesian Forest fires to raise global awareness.

Of particular interest is the implementation of the DPRK project database using the Internet Map Server technology developed by the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), Inc., which allows users to visualize and analyze Geographic Information System (GIS) databases using Internet browsers. ESRI, Inc., donated the necessary software and provided training to staff.

During the past several years, UNEP/GRID-Sioux Falls has been an active partner in the development of core data sets for environmental assessment and sustainable development planning. A summary of files transferred and dissemination of georeferenced data sets related to Population distribution, Land Cover, Topography (Digital Elevation Model (DEM), and River basins boundaries database (HYDRO1K) developed in partnership with a number of organizations around the world are given in the attached Table.


    Ashbindu Singh, Regional Coordinator
    Eugene Fosnight, Senior Scientist
    Michelle Anthony, Information Scientist
    Jeffrey Danielson, Scientist I (6 months)
    M. Sean Chenoweth, Scientist I (6 months)
    Amadou Dieye, Centre de Suivr Ecologique (Ecological Monitoring Center), Senegal, Scientist I (6 months)

Visiting Scientists

UNEP/GRID-Sioux Falls hosted two visiting scientists, namely: Firipo Mpabulungi, from the National Environment Management Authority, Uganda, and Albert Allotey, from the University of Ghana, Ghana, to support the study on Early Warning of Selected Environmental Issues in Africa. The Geographical Survey Institute (GSI) of Japan seconded a scientist, Norishige Kubo, to support Metadata standards and clearinghouse research.

For further information, please contact:

Dr. Ashbindu Singh
Regional Coordinator
United Nations Environment Programme
Division of Environmental Assessment, Information and Early Warning — North America
EROS Data Center
Sioux Falls, SD 57198
Tel: 605-594-6107/6117
Fax: 605-594-6119
Email: singh@usgs.gov
www: https://na.unep.net