Just the facts ma’am,” was the well-known catchphrase for the popular 1950s police procedural “Dragnet.” For some, that might be what springs to mind when geography is mentioned, as if it is merely an accumulation of facts. What is the longest river? Where is the highest mountain? While geography is certainly the science of place and space, it offers more than lists of data. It offers a way of thinking about the world. 

Three geography professors in the Department of Geology and Geography are pursuing works that analyze the world as it relates to spatial organization. For Maria Perez, that means researching the history of collaborations between U.S. and Cuban speleogists (cavers). Jonathan Hall is working to ensure that the quest to harvest wind energy doesn’t mean that an entire species of bird is sacrificed in the process. Greg Elmes has edited a book that reviews the role collecting, storing and processing geographical information plays in the criminal justice system. 

Geographers have a number of tools and technologies at their disposal as they examine an increasingly complex and evolving world. These changes, whether they affect the human, economic or physical environment, are crucial to understanding the factors that have shaped the fabric of society. 

The Trouble With Cuba

Pérez is using a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to examine how and why Cuban and U.S. speleologists (cavers) are collaborating amid a tense political climate. 

“I want to examine the interaction of these cavers from an anthropological perspective to see how the exchange of ideas between the U.S. and Cuba can provide insight about the geopolitics of science and exploration beyond U.S. borders,” she said. “Cavers from these two countries aren’t supposed to be collaborating. The U.S. government has had an embargo against Cuba for a long time, and it’s a big political issue.” 

“We’re trying to learn as much as we can about how condors navigate the landscape and respond to environmental conditions.” — Jonathan Hall

The Cuban Revolution in 1959 increased tension between the United States and Cuba, resulting in a U.S. government embargo that severely restricted — and at times halted — economic relations between the two countries. With a few exceptions, the embargo made it illegal for U.S. citizens to conduct business with or travel to Cuba. 

Despite these challenges, a number of U.S. citizens have collaborated with Cuban speleology organizations to explore Cuba’s karst landscape, characterized by caves, sinkholes, aquifers and other underground drainage systems. These speleologists are focused on the scientific study of caves and have found, explored, mapped and reported on the topography in Cuba. 

Jonathan Hall
Jonathan Hall. Photo Submitted.

Cuba is the first country in the Americas to establish a national caving group, the Sociedad Espeleológica de Cuba (Speleological Society of Cuba), and since 1940 more than 5,000 cavers have participated. But the future of the organization could be in question. 

“Cuba is going through a ton of changes that could have a significant impact on speleology research,” Pérez said. “If the U.S. embargo is lifted, what will happen to Cuban science? What will happen to Cuban caving? What is the impact going to be on conservation and exploration of caves?” 

Cuba is experiencing mass amounts of change in a relatively short period of time. In particular, it is likely that the country’s political leadership will change in the near future, making Pérez’s project a timely one. 

She plans to take multiple trips to Cuba to interview cavers and gather data from online archives. “I want to talk to these people, and I want to know who has succeeded and who has failed in these collaborations,” she said. 

Harvesting Wind Energy While Maintaining a Healthy Ecosystem

There is concern in California that planned wind turbine farms — intended to create new, renewable energy sources — will harm the populations of rare California condors and other birds of prey if placed in their habitat. 

Jonathan Hall, assistant professor in the Department of Geology and Geography, is using a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to monitor the flight patterns of condors to better understand how these birds respond to variation in topography and weather, which could ultimately save their lives. 

“There’s a potential conflict between plans to harvest more wind energy and these large birds that use the same resource,” Hall said. 

The placement of the turbines, paired with the condors’ expansive wing span and their inability to quickly respond to aerial threats (wind turbine blade tips can rotate at 150 miles per hour) could be a deadly combination for the rare bird. 

“As it turns out, some of the most attractive sites for wind turbines are sites that condors and other large raptors utilize to move across the landscape. 

“We’re trying to learn as much as we can about how condors navigate the landscape and respond to environmental conditions. A lot of time, money and effort has been and is still being spent on making sure these birds don’t disappear forever,” Hall said. 

Using solar-powered GPS units attached to individual condors, the research team will track each bird’s movements for the next year. The units record GPS location, altitude, flying speed and temperature every 15 minutes and transmit the data via existing cell phone networks to a remote server. 

The amount of data generated by each unit is a four-fold to eight-fold increase from previous-generation technology and will provide a much clearer picture of condor flight behavior. 

“There are unique benefits to renewable energy, but there are ecological benefits in condors’ presence. We need to understand these birds better if we are going to have more wind energy and condors,” Hall said. 

“I feel privileged to work with the folks that are keeping California condors from going extinct because these birds are truly awesome and an important component of a healthy ecosystem. It’s a common and ongoing challenge to mitigate the interests of humans and the survival of wildlife.” 

What Role Does Geospatial Technology Play in Investigating Crime and Providing Justice? 

Law enforcement agencies and forensic investigators have used geospatial data to profile serial offenders, track suspects and guide crime reduction efforts. 

Citizen groups have fought successfully against environmental discrimination and have engaged in class-action lawsuits, strengthened by the collection, analysis and presentation of geospatial data. 

Legal experts have used the technology in the courtroom, and in recent years, the technologies’ applications have expanded. 

Gregory Elmes, professor of geography at West Virginia University, has co-edited “Forensic GIS: The Role of Geospatial Technologies for Investigating Crime and Providing Evidence,” a book of case studies written for researchers, practitioners and students. 

Map w/pins

Crime mapping using Geographic Information Systems enables analysts in law enforcement agencies to map, visualize, and analyze crime incident patterns.

“Most of (society’s) data today contains locational information. Eighty percent of all of our data contains some sort of spatial or locational content,” Elmes said. 

“What we need to do, particularly in (the field of) geography, is to realize the power of locationally addressed data, and through our analytical and mapping capabilities.” 

The book discusses a wide range of technologies and applications for geographic, or location-based, information systems in forensic science, and serves  as a review of geospatial technology — the collecting, storing, processing and examining of geographic information — as it applies to criminal justice. 

One chapter, “Mapping and the Use of Force in Police Forces,” takes a deep look into the motives behind police militarization. The topic is particularly timely following the August shooting death of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, and the escalating tension surrounding protests and police force response. 

“The level of police militarization is of concern,” Elmes said. “This particular chapter struck me as very interesting. This is something you don’t normally think of in mapping crime, but it does fall within its scope.”

Elmes has been at WVU since 1979 and co-director of the West Virginia State GIS Technical Center since 1995. He has more than 30 years of experience in geographical information systems and the application of GIS techniques to societal issues such as public health, industries, archeology and public safety.