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Building Virtual Watersheds: A Global Opportunity

Published, December 2015, Journal of Environmental Management (Springer) 

Building Virtual Watersheds: A Global Opportunity to Strengthen Resource Management and Conservation

Lee Benda and Daniel Miller (Earth Systems Institute), Jose Barquin (University of Cantabria, Spain), Richard McCleary (BritishColombia Ministry of Forests, BC Canada),  Tijiu Cai and Ying Ji  (Northeastern Forestry University, Harbin China)


Modern land use planning and conservation strategies at landscape to country scales worldwide require complete and accurate digital representations of river networks, encompassing all channels including the smallest headwaters. The digital river networks, integrated with widely available digital elevation models, also need to have analytical capabilities to support resource management and conservation, including attributing river segments with key stream and watershed data, characterizing topography to identify landforms, discretizing land uses at scales necessary to identify human-environment interactions, and connecting channels downstream and upstream, and to terrestrial environments. We investigate the completeness and analytical capabilities of national to regional scale digital river networks that are available in five countries: Canada, China, Russia, Spain, and United States using actual resource management and conservation projects involving 12 university, agency and NGO organizations.  In addition, we review one pan-Euro and one global digital river network. Based on our analysis, we conclude that the majority of the regional, national and global scale digital river networks in our sample lack in network completeness, analytical capabilities or both. To address this limitation, we outline a general framework to build as complete as possible digital river networks and to integrate them with available digital elevation models to create robust analytical capabilities (e.g., virtual watersheds). We believe this presents a global opportunity for in-country agencies, or international players, to support creation of virtual watersheds to increase environmental problem solving, broaden access to the watershed sciences, and strengthen resource management and conservation in countries worldwide.

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Gore (1998) articulated a vision for a virtual earth (“Digital Earth”), one that would host vast quantities of data, including geospatial information, and analysis and visualization technologies to evaluate numerous aspects of our environment and human’s relationships to it, at a global scale (but down to individual watersheds and neighborhoods). The Digital Earth concept has been proposed to address global climate change, natural disaster prevention, new energy development, agricultural and food scarcity, and urban planning (Chinese National Academy of Sciences 1999, 2008). The expansive concept of a top-down global digital earth, however, has given way, for practical reasons, to a more bottom up approach involving multiple connected systems across multiple technology platforms (Goodchild et al. 2012). Our proposed building of digital landscapes at regional scales in many countries of the world to strengthen resource use and conservation is in accordance with Gore’s (1998) concept of a Digital Earth and its evolution at more local (region, country) scales.