McGill prof creates first accurate digital map of world's rivers
For Bernhard Lehner, an assistant professor in the geography department at McGill University, it seemed a daunting task: to design a detailed digital map of the world’s rivers.
But seven years and thousands of computer hours later, Lehner finally has a finished product: a global map detailing the world’s rivers, which has been posted online courtesy of National Geographic.
The project began when Lehner realized there wasn’t an accurate map of the world’s rivers. There were maps of individual country’s rivers, but not one that was seamless and covered the world where the rivers flow from one country to another. So in 2003 Lehner set out to build one.
The hydrologist and cartographer began the project when he was at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C.
Taking NASA satellite data from 2002 that measured surface elevation of the planet, he crunched it with special software and used six computers to process all the information. He compared the picture he was getting to maps, books and even Google Earth to find any errors.
In the time it took to complete the digital river map, Lehner, originally from Germany, left the World Wildlife Fund, became an assistant professor at McGill, and also produced two children, he joked in an interview with the Star.
The world’s river pathways weren’t always his consuming passion. As a child, he wanted to be a brewer. “It is also water-related,” he mused. “I’m from Bavaria where beer is very important.”
However, he turned instead to hydrology.
“I was interested in sciences and, at the same time, people,” he said. “Water struck me as a middle ground. . . I like that mixture of applying physical sciences to solve social and environmental problems. Water is the perfect topic where you have both.”
Now that his first digital rivers map has been drawn, Lehner hopes others will use the map and its data to look at larger problems, such as the impact climate change might have on the river network.
“The real power of the map is when you link it with other data and other applications,” he said.
Originally the project began as a detailed map of the rivers and habitats of rivers in the Amazon and Congo – areas that are remote and unpopulated. That work is also on display online at the United States Geological Survey website.
Next up for Lehner: adding detail about the rivers in the northern hemisphere. “We’re working on improving Northern Canada, Siberia and Scandinavia,” he said.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the project is still to come: a map he hopes will detail not just watershed boundaries, but the size, flow and volume of the world’s rivers.
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