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Ecoregion Locator and Interactive Maps

July 10th, 2019 by Alex Zorach

In the past several weeks, we have made much more rapid progress than we anticipated, in our work with ecoregions, geographic data, and maps. Key highlights are our new ecoregion locator tool, numerous interactive (clickable) maps, and integration of these regions into observation records and their photos. These accomplishments also pave the way towards development of ecoregion-based range maps of plant species.

Here's an example of how the ecoregions are displayed on a photo page:

The pages for photos and observations now show a hierarchy of ecoregions in the case that the location is specified. This list is linked to the master page on each region, with maps and articles on each region. Observation pages show a similar box.

The box is color-coded to match the map colors, which match the colors used on the EPA's ecoregion maps. You can click the links to be taken to pages on each region; these will eventually have articles on each region. We have written many articles already.

The idea behind this integration is so that, as users submit or browse observations, they will be presented with clear information about the ecoregions these observations are in, along with an easy way to access articles where they can learn more about those regions.

Ecoregion Locator: Accessible to All

Our site's interactive features, including the posting of observations and photos, are still in a limited testing phase, available only to a small number of users. But, to make our ecoregions accessible to everyone, we published an ecoregion locator, in which you can pin a point on a map and it will show you the full hierarchy of ecoregions, with links to our pages on these regions:

Our ecoregion locator is accessible to everyone; people do not need to be logged in to use it. It will show you the full hierarchy of ecoregions for any point in North America. Currently, the continental U.S. has one greater level of detail than Canada, Mexico, and Alaska.

You can use this tool to look up your own ecoregion, as well as the ecoregions of any locations in North America. Feel free to share this tool with others; we want it to reach as broad an audience as possible.

Interactive Ecoregion Maps

When we first announced ecoregions, we only had a single, clickable map for all of North America, and it lacked political boundaries. We have since imported information on state/province borders, and county boundaries in the U.S. as well, creating an overlay to the maps to make it visually clearer where these ecoregions are located relative to familiar political boundaries.

These maps are SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) files, which scale gracefully, but also have the added benefit that we can embed HTML links and styling in them, producing clickable maps with regions that change color and display region names when you hover your mouse over them. We have taken care to optimize these files so that they load and display quickly even on slower internet connections and older computers and mobile devices. These maps work on mobile devices, but some of their features are only available on desktop browsers with mouse pointers.

Here is one of the larger and more complex maps, that of the Eastern Temperate Forests:



Scanning this map, we can make some observations that may be familiar to people who have lived or traveled in these areas. For example, northeast Ohio looks a lot like New England and upstate New York, which makes sense as they are both part of the Mixed Wood Plains, and this area looks less like other regions of Ohio, which are in different ecoregions. Similarly, the topography and culture of the Ozarks in Arkansas and Missouri are similar to that in the Appalachian regions of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and other states; these areas are both part of the same ecoregion. If you explore our maps, you can make all sorts of interesting observations like these.

Although our website is primarily about plants, you will find that these ecoregions often correspond to cultural and economic boundaries as well. You will also find discussion of these topics in our ecoregion articles, as they are directly relevant to the flora of an area, through factors like agriculture, forestry, and other human influences on the landscape.

What's to come: ecoregion-based range maps of plant species

The most exciting part about our recent progress with maps lies in how we generated the maps. Creating accurate, aesthetically-pleasing maps is normally labor-intensive. Rather than drawing maps from hand, or through a complex series of steps of exporting data from GIS software, we developed our own software to dynamically generate the maps in one step using data in our own database. This data is sourced from a variety of organizations, including the U.S. EPA, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the U.S. Census, and various other free data sources.

In generating these maps, we have laid the groundwork for (instantly) dynamically-generating range maps for individual species, based on ecoregions rather than political boundaries. We are now able to automate the generation of maps based on table-based entries in our database.

The hierarchical organization of the regions will make the massive task of building range maps by ecoregion more manageable: we will begin by marking species as native or introduced for the continent of North America as a whole, and then proceed first to the more modest number of level 1 ecoregions, then proceeding to more detail as we are able. Some of this work is also already done for us, as the National Highway Administration has a database of many native plants corresponding to level 3 ecoregions.

We are aware of a few glitches.

Our ecoregion maps are a massive undertaking, and as one would expect, there are a few minor problems, including a few areas of land not currently included in ecoregions of all levels, as well as some inconsistencies between level 3 and level 4 regions which lead to a few problems on our maps of the level 3 regions.

We are already aware of these issues and are working to correct them. Many of the problems stem from the fact that our data for US Level 4 ecoregions has been revised more recently than that for the CEC's level 3 ecoregion, but in order to fix these, we need to manually synthesize data from multiple sources, which is time-consuming. There are also some problems with points near shorelines not displaying in any regions. We are aware of these inconsistencies, but if you see any other problems that we are not aware of, please let us know!

Explore and share!

Please check out these new features for yourself, and please share them with others! You can start with our ecoregion locator, or browse our map of all of North America, clicking through to progressively finer levels of detail.

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