GIS/GNSS/remote sensing for Coastal Management

Dr. M. M. Yagoub,
Department of Geography and Urban Planning,
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, UAE University,
P.O. Box 15551, Al Ain, UAE

The United Nation (UN) declared “1998” as the International Year of the Ocean and this reflects the social and economic importance of the coastal zone. The declaration promotes public awareness about oceans and their greater role in global change. Almost half of the world’s population lives within the coastal zones and in UAE it is almost a similar percentage or even more. This is because the coastal zone provides some of the basic human needs such as water (desalination plants), food (fishes), commercial activities (ports, tourism), and natural resources (mangroves, petroleum, gas, etc.). The spatial locations of these resources and descriptive information about their status and volume are essential for better utilization and conservation. GIS with its capability to integrate both the spatial and attribute data is an ideal tool to manage coastal data and help in decision-making. This article provides a general overview about application of GIS/GNSS/remote sensing for Coastal Management and shares experience of introducing GIS for Coastal Management course at UAE University.

Keywords: GIS, GNSS, remote sensing, Coastal Management, Education.


The main objective of this article is to give a general overview about coastal zone and how Geographic Information System (GIS), Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), and remote sensing are used to help in its management. The article highlights also how GIS for Coastal Management course is embedded in the Curriculum at UAE University. The ultimate goal is to raise public awareness and encourage educational sectors such as schools and universities to inject coastal issues and utilize GIS/GNSS and remote sensing.

Coastal zone

The coastal zone is defined as the area between the landward limit of marine influence and seaward limit of terrestrial influence (Carter, 1988). Kay and Alder (2005) give a range of definitions used by various organizations in international and national governments. Coast, like all landscapes, are the product of the combine influence of endogenetic process (origin from within the earth), exogenetic process (operate at the surface and driven by solar radiation) and gravitational effect of the moon and the sun (tides) (Haslett, 2009; Trenhaile, 1997). The coastal zone becomes very important due to its ecological and economic resources and concentration of population.

GIS for coastal management

Marine and coastal applications of GIS are gaining wide acceptance in scientific as well as GIS communities, and cover the fields of deep sea geology, chemistry and biology, and coastal geology, biology, engineering and resource management (Bartlett and Smith, 2004; Breman, 2002; Wright, 2002;Wright and Bartlett, 2000; Valavanis, 2002). The ability of GIS to integrate diverse data, visualization, flexibility to develop user interface for non-GIS users, and coupling with external models are some of the “Strengths” that encourage adoption of GIS for coastal management (Lakhan, 2003; MacLeo, 2013; Skidmore, 2002).

The application of GIS for coastal management is supported by various organizations such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO/UN), the International Geographical Union's Commission on Coastal Systems, the Commission on Marine Cartography of the International Cartographic Association (ICA/CMC), and the International Hydrographic Organization. In line with this, many conferences addressed the application of GIS for coastal management such as the International Hydrographic Conferences (IHC) and CoastGIS conferences (started in 1995). The input for GIS can be from Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), remote sensing, ship survey (depth, water quality sampling, geophysical data, etc), buoys’ readings (temperature, current, salinity, wind speed, etc.), cameras, or any other sensors.

Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) for coastal management

The GPS (USA) and GLONASS (Russia) positioning systems have a long application history in location of resources in the coastal zone, marine navigation, and rescue operations (Safety of Life at Sea-SOLAS). The new Beidou (China) and Galileo (Europe) systems will increase availability, improve accuracy and reliability, and offer a backup for the existing GNSS (Ta et al., 2013).

(few meters) while higher-power jammers disrupt /block signal at a distance of up to tens of kilometers (Dixon et al., 2013). To provide safer navigation, the International Maritime Organization (IMO/UN) issued in 2000 a requirement that all ships carry Automatic Identification Systems (AISs) capable of providing information about the ship to other ships and to coastal authorities automatically. AIS data transmitted by ships could be detrimental to the safety and security of ships and port facilities. Tracking of ships and marine species (turtles, whales, etc.) by GNSS has an immense benefit to diverse users within the coastal zone.

Remote Sensing for coastal managementand

The application of remote sensing for coastal management witnesses a rapid increase since the launch of the first land observation remote sensing satellite in 1972 (Lansat1). Satellite remote sensing offers great potential for this scope (Maselli, 2005). Numerous applications had shown the usefulness of remote sensing specially for shallow coastal waters (5 to 10 m) (Ji et al., 1992). Examples of these applications include water quality, assessment of shorelines, sea grass, chlorophyll, and benthic habitat mapping (Mishra et al., 2004). The majority of the applications employ digital image classification (supervised, unsupervised, Fuzzy, etc.) and visual image interpretation based on fundamental elements of image interpretation including tone, texture, size, shape, pattern, shadow, site, and association (Jensen, 2005).

New developments in satellite imaging expand the application of remote sensing for coastal management. The development can be noticed in improvement of spectral, radiometric, spatial, and temporal resolutions. For example, spatial resolution improves from 80 m in Landsat1 to 0.31 m in WorldView 3, while the number of bands increases from multispectral (3-10 bands e.g. Landsat8) to hyperspectral (up 200 bands e.g. Hyperion).The advantages of remote sensing for coastal zone include coverage of large area in one image, reaching inaccessible areas, and providing repetitive coverage that help in monitoring. These advantages save time and reduce cost. With availability of free Landsat images from USGS and addition of a band specifically designed for coastal zone (Band 1: 0.43-0.45 Um) in Landsat 8 (2013), the saving of the cost is becoming evident. Meteorological satellites such as those from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and European Space Agency (ESA) provide weather data at short interval (within hours) and this is vital for the coastal management.

All GNSS receivers compute location/elevation/time (X, Y, Z, T) via signals from 3-5 simultaneously visible satellites. The accuracy of GNSS depends on number of visible satellites, type of receiver, atmospheric conditions, and the strength of the signal. Among other problems, that face navigation at sea is the vulnerabilities to jammers. The main two types of jammers are the small Personal Protection Devices (PPD) and higher-power jammers. The PPD disrupt /block GNSS signal within short range (few meters) while higher-power jammers disrupt /block signal at a distance of up to tens of kilometers (Dixon et al., 2013). To provide safer navigation, the International Maritime Organization (IMO/UN) issued in 2000 a requirement that all ships carry Automatic Identification Systems (AISs) capable of providing information about the ship to other ships and to coastal authorities automatically. AIS data transmitted by ships could be detrimental to the safety and security of ships and port facilities. Tracking of ships and marine species (turtles, whales, etc.) by GNSS has an immense benefit to diverse users within the coastal zone.

The problems that face application of remote sensing in coastal zone are the difficulty in coincident times of sampling (e.g. measurement of chemical parameters) and passing time of the satellites, difference in scales between cell size and sampling points distribution, mixed signal coming from the water, column and the bottom variable reflectance properties of the relevant organic and inorganic constituents (suspended sediments, pigments, yellow substance), and difficulty to identify control points in the sea (Kirk, 1994).

During recent years, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) has increasingly been demonstrated as a highly efficient method of data collection for coastal zones. LIDAR can collect accurate, high-resolution bathymetry at a rate of 8 km2 per hour and at a depth up to 40 m (Irish and White, 1998). Airborne LIDAR technology can be used to estimate depth of water in shallow areas in a short time in comparison to bathymetric mapping by ships. This is needed in case of disasters and urgent projects.

UAE has witnessed noteworthy events that reflect the country’s commitment to Space research and development. In 1970s, Shaikh Zayed, the founder of the country, met a delegation from NASA and appreciated NASA’s work on the moon exploration mission. Ever since that date, many space activities and developments took place including: the launching of the First Thurayasatellite in 2000;the launching of DubaiSat 1 in 2009;Yahsat's Y1A in 2011, Yahsat's Y1B in 2012, DubaiSat 2 in 2013, and the establishment of UAE Space Agency in 2014. All of these satellites have greater role in coastal management through providing satellite images and communication (position of ships, data transfer, etc.).

GIS for Coastal Management course at UAE University

In 2005, the Department of Geography at UAE University introduced GIS for coastal management course based on global trend and the local market/community needs. The course is aligned with the UAE policies (the innovation sectors specified by the Federal Government, 2014, Abu Dhabi's Maritime Strategy 2030). The ultimate goal is to help in capacity building and produce graduates who are equipped with GIS/GNSS/remote sensing skills for coastal management. Students are exposed to theory, applications, and empirical results of study cases around the world. Topics include institutional issues (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), marine data model, GIS for turtles, coastal disasters, ports management, fisheries management, beaches, red tide, and desalination plants. The laboratory portion of the course provides students with hands-on contact with GIS and remote sensing information products and their applications in coastal management. Upon successful completion of the course, a student will be able to (outcomes):

  • Integrate different GIS data to solve real coastal management problem (Critical thinking skills).
  • Demonstrate ability in using GIS software to build coastal database, perform spatial analysis, and prepare maps, reports, and charts for presentation of results (technical skills).
  • Evaluate and critically identify the strength, weakness, opportunities, and threat (SWOT analysis) of applying GIS/GPS/remote sensing in coastal management (Critical thinking skills, communication skills).

Examples of GIS/GNSS/remote sensing projects that are conducted by students include Coastal changes along Abu Dhabi 1970s to 2000, siting suitable locations for desalination plants, mapping mangroves, mapping marine oil fields, coastal pollution, and tracing history of ports from remote sensing. Students are encouraged to consult local departments for data and explore geo-spatial innovation tools such as Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth, Geography Network, USGS, NOAA, and Global Land Cover Facility at the University of Maryland.


Utilizing GIS for coastal management provides a mechanism for sharing data and consequently avoid duplication and save cost. With around 3000 satellites orbiting the earth everyday gathering images, communicating conversations, positioning objects, and networking people there is a potential for streaming such Big Data for coastal management. Knowledge about the limitations and vulnerabilities of the satellites helps in identifying possible risks and preparation of suitable mitigations measures. Introducing of GIS/GNSS/remote sensing for coastal management in the university’s curriculum meets the global and local needs and prepare future generations.


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*All sites are accessed on March, 2016

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