Mapping the Everglades: GIS Data Collection for the U.S. Geological Survey

Three years out of my college degree, on my second major data collection project as a geospatial analyst with Dewberry, I found myself in the back of a twin-engine Piper Navajo, wearing a full flight suit and headgear, operating two different lidar sensors aimed at the wetlands below. The Florida Everglades 1,300 feet beneath us teemed with crocodiles, lizards, snakes, and Florida panthers. The air outside the plane cabin was hot and sticky.

Three GIS professionals--Kyle Olejniczak, John Hunt, and I--were working up to 16 hour days. We would run as many as three data collection missions up in the plane, at four hours each, and then head back to the lab to upload the data. We would rotate in week-long cycles to avoid exhaustion. Our aim was to finish our mapping of the Everglades before rainy season would make data collection impossible.

A Vast, Subtropical Wilderness

The Everglades are the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. It's "an unparalleled landscape that provides important habitat for numerous rare and endangered species," according to the National Park Service (NPS). The Everglades are a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a Wetland of International Importance.

Despite their significance, the Everglades still face a host of issues -- invasive, non-native species threaten wildlife populations, and water flow issues persist from prior government projects. Lidar is a crucial tool for mapping habitats like the Everglades that are vast, inhospitable, and wild.

This particular project was for the birds -- literally. The Cape Sable seaside sparrow is a small bird, about 13 to 14 centimeters long, that lives and reproduces almost exclusively in Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. The birds were placed on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species List in 1967, and the species continues to be threatened by sea level rise and reduced freshwater flows. NPS and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) will use the data we collected for ecological studies of the water levels to determine what areas need remediation to protect the sparrows' habitat.

A lot of effort for one small bird! But one of the things I love about lidar is that the data we worked so hard to collect will be useful for a number of other analyses in the future.


This particular collection project was a technical challenge. A dual sensor was not available, so our team used two separate sensors and set them up to "talk" to each other while in the air. Each sensor also needed to be calibrated with an on-the-ground base station to relay accurate GPS data back and forth. Our set-up was one of the most complicated sensor set-ups that the team we worked with has seen.

Processing the data also took longer than normal -- with data from two sensors in two different formats, we had to pull data from two sensor drives, which takes a few hours each.

The full project covered 1,211 square miles. Our data collection flight time totaled 148 hours.

For me, this project was challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. Since taking a GIS course in college, and now as a geospatial professional, collecting good data has always been a motivator for me.

The high-density topobathymetric lidar and ground survey data we collected will assist USGS and NPS in overall environmental management of the park, including initiatives to address sea level rise. The data resulting from this project will also help increase the predictive capability of hydrologic models and improve understanding of the park's diverse habitats and drainage characteristics.

That, and, the views from up in the Navajo were just spectacular -- the green mangroves and winding, serpentine blue water all looks so peaceful from up there. The Everglades are an ecological treasure, and mapping them is a project I won't soon forget.

  • Erin Meadows
    Erin Meadows
Blog Recap

Sign up to receive our monthly blog recap via email

*required field