Geoscientist’s Toolkit: QGIS

QGIS screenshot, showing Heard Island.  Brown is land/rock, blue are lagoons, and the dotted white is glacier.
QGIS screenshot, showing Heard Island. Brown is land/rock, blue are lagoons, and the dotted white is glacier.

One of a geoscientist’s most useful tools is a geographic information system, or GIS. This is a computer program which allows the creation and analysis of maps and spatial data. Perhaps the most widely used in academia is ArcGIS, from ESRI. However, as a student and hobbyist who likes to support the open-source software ecosystem, I use the free/open-source QGIS.

QGIS can be used to make geologic maps of an area, chart streams, and note where certain geologic features (e.g. volcanic cones) are present. For instance, at the top of this post is a map of Heard Island that I’ve been playing with, from the Australian Antarctic Division. It is composed of three different layers, each published in 2009: an island layer (base, brown), a lagoon layer (middle, blue), and a glacier layer (top, dotted bluish-white).

I believe I have mentioned here previously that one interesting thing about working with Heard Island is that with major surface changes underway (glacial retreat, erosion, minor volcanic activity), the maps become obsolete fairly quickly. This week I have been learning about creating polygons in a layer, so that I can recreate a geologic map from Barling et al. 1994.[1] One issue I’ve come up against, though, is that the 1994 paper has some areas covered in glacier (from 1986/7 field work), whereas my 2009 glacier extent map shows them to be presently uncovered. In fact, even the 2009 map shows a tongue of glacier protruding into Stephenson Lagoon (in the southeast corner), while recent satellite imagery shows no such tongue.

During the Heard Island Expedition in March and April, 2016, I hope that we will have time to go do a little geologic mapping. Creating some datasets showing the extent of glaciation (particularly along the eastern half of the island) and vegetation, as well as updating the geologic map to include portions which were glaciated in 1986/7, would be a worthwhile and seemingly straightforward project.

QGIS itself is much more than a mapping tool (not that I know how to use it), and can analyze numeric data which is spatially distributed, like the concentration of chromium in soil or water samples from different places on a study site. QGIS provides a free way to get your hands dirty with spatial data and mapping, and is powerful enough to use professionally. Users around the globe share information on how to use it, and contribute to its development.

For those looking to go into geoscience as a career, I would strongly recommend learning how to use it. I didn’t learn GIS in college (chemists don’t use it much), and somehow avoided it in grad school. But I regret not having put time in to learn it sooner. There’s all kinds of interesting spatial data, and a good job market for people with a GIS skillset (or so I hear). I have only scratched the surface of QGIS’s capabilities with my use of it, but I definitely intend to keep learning. You can probably follow the day-to-day frustrations and victories on my Twitter account (@i_rockhopper).


[1] Barling, J.; Goldstein, S. L.; Nicholls, I. A. 1994 “Geochemistry of Heard Island (Southern Indian Ocean): Characterization of an Enriched Mantle Component and Implications for Enrichment of the Sub-Indian Ocean Mantle” Journal of Petrology 35, p. 1017–1053. doi: 10.1093/petrology/35.4.1017