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Geography is covering new ground for travelers

The discipline isn't what you recall from grade school — it runs your GPS and enhances travel planning and on-the-spot decision-making. And it's advancing.

April 07, 2013|By Susan Spano
  • Landsat 5 images of the Great Salt Lake in Utah in 1985, left, and 2010 show dramatic changes in the area. The government satellite program’s images are available to the public for free.
Landsat 5 images of the Great Salt Lake in Utah in 1985, left, and 2010 show… (U.S. Geological Survey,…)

Forget about learning the state capitals, at least, as the sum total of your knowledge of geography.

"Geography is about meaning, not knowing place names and memorizing lists — that was school geography," said Daniel Edelson, vice president for education programs at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.

Say hello to the new geography. It runs your GPS unit, takes you on mobile-device-guided tours, helps you find and see hotel rooms before you book them.

Want to calculate your estimated time of arrival, locate a nearby gluten-free restaurant, or find out whether it's raining in Río? No problem. Apps accessible from your laptop, tablet or smartphone can help.

Geographic innovation has "democratized travel by letting people take trips led by their own interests," said Joy Adams, a senior researcher for the Assn. of American Geographers. The Washington, D.C.-based organization holds its annual meeting Tuesday-Saturday in L.A., although the subjects will go way beyond trip-planning.

Planet Earth lovers should prepare to be amazed by the way new geography has set about solving some of the world's most pressing and mystifying problems, along the way making travelers safer, keeping them fully informed and throwing open the doors to new horizons. To wit:

— Since late last summer, satellites have been capturing photographic evidence of violence against civilians on the remote, war-torn border between Sudan and South Sudan. The Satellite Sentinel Project, co-founded by actor-writer-producer-director George Clooney and operated by earth imagery provider DigitalGlobe, gives international peacekeepers a new way to document crimes against humanity.

— During the destructive 2012 summer wildfire season in Colorado, which forced the evacuation of 32,000 people and destroyed 350 homes, Redlands-based Esri, a geographical information systems company, developed a real-time map of conflagrations affecting communities all around the state. Using satellite imagery, photos, video and social media sources such as Facebook and Twitter, it helped those in threatened locations make decisions while providing critical information to first-responders and firefighters.

— Without turning over a single stone, Sarah Parcak, a "space archaeologist" from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has found subterranean structures in the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis. Slow, sweaty excavation has been underway at the Nile Delta site for almost a century. But now 34-year-old Parcak is using advanced satellite imagery that is revealing 3,000-year-old pyramids, tombs and a street plan.

In the simplest terms, the new geography is "the spatial organization of phenomena — the where, what and why," said Alexander Murphy, a University of Oregon geographer who chaired a recent study on the future of geography for the National Academy of Sciences.

But when information from myriad sources is integrated with a map, connections and patterns emerge.

For example, UCLA geographer Glen MacDonald said analyses undertaken at the university conclude that there will be enough water to supply L.A. throughout the 21st century, provided reallocation.

In his 2012 book "Why Geography Matters: More Than Ever," geographer Harm de Blij uses maps to describe the mind-set of jihadists and areas of potential conflict in the future.

Fields and mountains of study

Geography graduated from grade school in the '60s when American astronauts snapped pictures of the Earth from space. The images were not only spectacularly beautiful, said Matthew Larsen, a climate change and land use geographer for the U.S. Geographical Survey, but they also suggested global surveying applications to a variety of government agencies.

Defense, agriculture and other departments joined together in pushing for satellites with information-gathering cameras trained back on the Earth.

Remote sensing — new geography's technological linchpin — was born, along with the Landsat program, co-operated by NASA and the USGS.

Since the launch of its first satellite in 1972, Landsat has collected millions of images — available to everyone for free at A new generation of photos has started to arrive from Landsat 8, which was launched Feb. 11 and takes images so clear you can see a baseball diamond, if not the pitcher's mound, from 438 miles above Earth's surface.

It's crowded up there. Foreign countries have launched remote-sensing crafts; the GPS units in your car and or mobile devices display imagery captured by more than 20 Department of Defense satellites. The National Weather Service has its own unmanned weather stations.

Since the 1980s, when the government began granting commercial licenses for satellite imaging, private companies have refined the technology, developing laser and light spectrum sensors that can see into water and under jungle canopies.

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