Modern-Day Geographer, Matt Merrifield

Matt Merrifield is the manager of the Conservancy’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) group. While he believes that there will always be a need for paper maps, nothing beats the Internet for keeping maps accurate and accessible.

We talked to Matt about the role of maps, geographic information and the Internet in solving the greatest environmental challenges we face.

What does a geographer do at The Nature Conservancy?

Matt Merrifield:

I worry about the “where” part of every question we ask. Where are the species we want to protect? Where are the places we must preserve for the future?

I coordinate a great team of folks who supply geographic information to our science and conservation teams. Today, information like the geographic distribution of mountain lions or rockfish is stored in large databases that we can visualize in the form of interactive, Internet-accessible maps.

How is geography used in solving environmental challenges like climate change?

Matt Merrifield:

We must understand which areas will be vulnerable as the climate changes. For example, given predicted sea level–rise scenarios, where might wetlands need to move to, and how viable will that new area be for this shift to occur? Overlaying geographic data on future high-water lines and land-use maps can reveal a lot in identifying areas important for adapting to climate change.

Can mapping help minimize conflicts?

Matt Merrifield:

Yes. Take the issue of siting renewable energy facilities in the deserts. California has some of the most remarkable deserts in the world, and there are many interests competing to use them. In order to solve this challenge, we need to identify and map the key areas for biodiversity and for the many other uses as well. This can help determine a path of least resistance for all parties, whether they are environmentalists or energy companies.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen?

Matt Merrifield:

The Internet is now the key distribution mechanism for geographic information. In addition, the entire concept of Web 2.0—or using the Internet as a tool for garnering input from its users—gives us a unique and powerful set of tools for spatial planning.

What are you working on now?

Matt Merrifield:

We’re trying to democratize information. In many areas there is typically one agency responsible for maintaining conservation data, and they often don’t have the capacity or the budget to keep this data current. I’d like to see a system analogous to Open Street Map—an editable online map for protected areas. Having an accurate depiction of what is currently being protected is crucial in order to make good decisions about what to protect in the future.

I take it you like your job?

Matt Merrifield:

I have a dream job. I work on interesting, complicated questions, and the Conservancy allows me to be entrepreneurial in how we address them. This really feeds my creativity and keeps me positive when faced with all our environmental issues.



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