Geospatial Ecological Research at the Institut Français de Pondichéry 

Geospatial research at the IFP is carried out by the Department of Geospatial Monitoring and Information Technology (GeoSMIT). The current GEOSMIT lab grew out of the Cartography Department that was set up to draft the numerous forest maps produced by the IFP from 1956 onwards. Before GIS software was introduced, the maps were drawn by hand by a team of draftsmen, layer by layer, on tracing sheets.

Source: IFP Photo Archives

GIS and the transition to GeoSMIT

The arrival of GIS in 1994-1995 marks the transition from traditional cartography to modern geomatics at the IFP. GIS software packages were used to build geographic databases based on the older 1:250,000 vegetation maps to facilitate the digital composition of new maps and to update older maps with new satellite data. 

The rich geographic database built up over decades of extensive fieldwork has served as the basis for new geospatial research initiatives. Geospatial data on vegetation, settlements, roads and railway networks, water bodies, administrative boundaries etc. is further strengthened with data on altitude, temperature, soil, climate, rainfall patterns and other ecological and topographical parameters. Geospatial research at the institute has later been concentrated along three main axes:

  1. Spatial monitoring and observations of vegetation changes in terrestrial and coastal ecosystems using remote sensing (including  focus areas such as mangroves and wetlands)
  2. Vulnerability of human and natural environments to pressures induced by oceanic processes, climate change and anthropogenic activities(with focus on the Tamil Nadu coast)
  3. Information technology dedicated to scientific data manipulation and knowledge sharing (with focus on biodiversity)

Spatial monitoring and observations of vegetation changes in terrestrial and coastal ecosystems using remote sensing

The monitoring and observation of vegetation changes in forest ecosystems have been an ongoing effort. The expertise acquired since the late 1990s in geospatial monitoring of such terrestrial ecosystems has helped initiate a long term interdisciplinary program for monitoring the transformation of coastal ecosystems.  

In 2005 IFP was invited by the Government of Kerala to participate in a project on the rationalization of protected area networks. The GeoSMIT’s geospatial analysis showed that a large number of ecologically important areas (high number of endemic species, rare and endangered species, unique ecosystems) were outside of the existing protected area network. IFP’s report and analysis identified priority zones for conservation and facilitated the reorganisation of the protected area networks to cover vital hitherto excluded regions. 

The GeoSMIT has frequently collaborated with other departments at the Institute wherever geospatial expertise has been required. In collaboration with the Department of Ecology, a joint research programme on the distribution of endemic species in the Western Ghats was carried out. A geographic database containing data on endemic species, main forest types, forest limits and bioclimatic zones was built and combined with other ecological descriptions. This project resulted in the publication of a book “Atlas of Endemics of the Western Ghats, distribution of tree species in the evergreen and semi-evergreen forests” (1997) by B.R.Ramesh, J.P. Pasal, C. Nouguier, and an interactive CD-ROM “Endemic tree species of the Western Ghats (India)” (1997) by R. Datta, C. Nouguier, J.P. Pascal, B.R. Ramesh. 

Information technology dedicated to scientific data manipulation and knowledge sharing (with a focus on biodiversity )

Committed to making scientific data open and accessible, the GeoSMIT has utilized information technology in innovative ways to consolidate existing scientific knowledge and build multi-stakeholder networks including scientists, policymakers, civil society actors and members of the general public, particularly through the development of digital applications and portals. Voluntary participation and collective knowledge creation have been important guiding principles for these projects. Some of these projects include the India Biodiversity Portal, the Western Ghats Portal, BIOTK (see note on Forest Mapping for more on this), the Mangrove Identification Kit, and the Historical Atlas of South India.

Coastal Vulnerabilities

Since 2010 the GeoSMIT, besides its work in the Western Ghats, has also turned its attention towards the Coromandel Coast. Through various projects, the lab gathers data on anthropogenic and natural threats to coastal ecosystems and livelihoods and creates multi-factor models to understand risk, vulnerability and monitor changes to the coastal landscape from natural processes such as the sea-level rise and wave erosion as well as anthropogenic factors like industrialization and urbanization.