State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Students Practice GIS and Remote-Sensing Field Work in Black Rock Forest

By Kytt MacManus, Christina Paton, Sara Lytle, Dara Mendeloff, Greg Yetman, & Gina Dinnegan

Students and teachers from three Columbia University GIS courses on a field trip to Black Rock Forest Consortium on October 28, 2017. One of the data collection methods utilized balloons for aerial mapping. Photo: Gina Dinnegan

When it comes to learning about data collection techniques, there is no substitute for field work experiences. On October 28, three Columbia classes embarked on a field trip to the Black Rock Forest Consortium, a 3,870-acre forest and scientific field station in Cornwall, New York, to learn primary data collection techniques using remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS).

Funding from a Fall 2017 Earth Institute Course Support Grant provided this field work opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in three courses: GIS for Sustainable Development, taught by Kytt MacManus with teaching assistant Sara Lytle; GIS for Sustainability Management, taught by Dara Mendeloff with teaching assistant Christina Paton; and GIS for International Studies, taught by Greg Yetman. 

Students receive instruction from Professor Greg Yetman in the Science and Education Center at Black Rock Forest in Cornwall, NY. Photo: Gina Dinnegan

Following an introduction to field data collection, remote sensing, and orientation to the Black Rock Forest in the Consortium’s Science and Education Center, the group hiked to the Upper Reservoir where they built their own aerial mapping devices using helium-filled balloons. They used a Balloon Mapping Kit by Public Lab (a non-profit organization dedicated to the development of low cost, user modifiable, open source scientific instruments) to capture imagery of the area.

Professor Kytt MacManus adds helium to a balloon used for aerial mapping at Black Rock Forest in Cornwall, NY. Photo: Sara Lytle

The balloons were let loose carrying Mobius Action Cams, also from Public Lab, which were configured to take photos in five-second intervals through the duration of the flight. There were two balloons, one equipped with a 6mm lens, and another with an infrared camera. 

But things didn’t go exactly as planned, as high winds pulled the balloons off course and required that we fly them lower than expected to maintain control. “Nature’s uncooperative winds humbled our attempts at remote sensing with the weather balloons, but imparted a valuable lesson in field work: an observer cannot always plan for atmospheric conditions, but one should always plan and hope for the best,” said Octavio Franco, a graduate student in Columbia’s Sustainable Management (SUMA) program. Although weather conditions were not perfect, the classes still captured usable results. Select results from the balloon mapping exercises are viewable online at 

Next, students dug into the primary collection of geospatial data at ground level, beginning with a short hike with GPS units to explore possible issues with field data collection accuracy. They then undertook field surveys using Collector for ArcGIS, a mobile application framework which enables GIS users to design and implement their own custom field surveys collaboratively on smartphones. Because Black Rock Forest is in a remote location with variable internet and cell phone connectivity, students pre-loaded imagery basemaps onto their phones before the trip, and synced their collection results to the collaborative map when WiFi was once again available.

Students receive instruction as they hike from Professor Dara Mendeloff, at Black Rock Forest in Cornwall, NY. Photo: Gina Dinnegan

Students learned basic tree identification and how to recognize the white woolly masses that indicate hemlock wooly adelgid infestation. Using their collector apps, students crowdsourced the collection of physical information on the health and location of hemlock trees surrounding the Alock Meadow Reservoir. Vibhuti Agarwal, a SUMA graduate student, said her favorite part of the field trip was using the collector app to gather this data. “[We] learned how to identify whether a tree is infested and the intensity of the infestation, and were able to collect details like the location and photos of each infested tree.”

Students also noted each tree’s diameter at breast height, and the data was later uploaded and cross-referenced with the remote-sensed area images for spatial analysis. When we returned to the Science and Education center student’s were able to use WiFi to sync their data into the classes joint web map. The results are viewable in ArcGIS Online.

The Black Rock Field Trip was an important part of experiential education in helping students to understand the complexities and limitations of field work. “The field trip was more than just a fun day off campus in a remote, natural environment,” said Arwal. “It was a great team-building experience as well as a learning opportunity.” The field trip provided a long-lasting appreciation of the effort needed in producing high-quality, usable geographic data.

Kytt MacManus is a geographic information programmer at Columbia’s Center for International Earth Science Information (CIESIN), and an adjunct lecturer; Christina Paton is a teaching assistant and graduate student at the School of International and Public Affairs; Sara Lytle is a teaching assistant and undergraduate in Columbia College; Dara Mendeloff is a geographic information specialist at CIESIN and an adjunct lecturer; Greg Yetman is the associate director of Geospatial Applications at CIESIN and an adjunct lecturer; and Gina Dinnegan is an administrative coordinator at CIESIN. The authors would like to thank Elisabeth Sydor, Communications Coordinator at CIESIN, and Sarah Fecht, Content Manager for State of the Planet for their valuable editorial comments.

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