Alex Palmer's Natural History Notes and Thoughts

Thoughts and reflections on various social and environmental issues, as well as naturalist observations from the great outdoors.

Using Google Earth To Estimate Shoreline Trash

About once a week, I do a routine trash pick-up along my parent’s shoreline, which is along a tidal basin of the Chesapeake Bay.  On average, I pick up one full 13 gallon trash bag’s worth of garbage.  I then wondered how much garbage was along the  shores of my neighborhood on any one day per week.  Knowing this information would provide me with a scope of how much trash needs to pick up along the shore in the urbanized, low-income section of town I am in.

I figured the best way to do this would be to measure the length of the shoreline of where i do my routine trash  pick-up, and then assuming that distance would equal one 13-gallon trash bag’s worth of trash.

Clearly, though, I would first need to measure the length of my routine trash-pickup route, and then I would need to find the total length of shoreline on the respective tidal basin.  How the heck am I going to do that?

Well, I could start by getting a looong tape measure, pickle myself on thorny vines, and trespass on people’s lawns.  Once I had that measurement, I could look at a street map of my neighborhood and try to match that distance I measured with the scale and projection on that map.

Or I could just use Google Earth.

Google Earth is a virtual globe software that can give details information about the surface of the Earth, including features (attributes) such as distance, land cover type, tourist locations, roads, etc.  Unlike a manual globe, Google Earth can zoom down to nearly any point on our planet…including my parents’ shoreline, and features can be measured (such as the length of my parent’s shoreline) or analyzed in some other fashion (e.g. proximity to grocery stores, national parks, etc.).  Best of all this program is available free of charge to anyone who has a desktop computer.  Figure 1 Shows a screenshot of the Google Earth globe as it would appear if you opened the program on your home or work computer.

Figure 1: The Google Earth software as it should appear on a person's home or work computer.

How to use this program and everything it can do is beyond the scope of this blog post, so for now let me show you how I am going to use this software to estimate how much trash is along the shoreline of my parent’s tidal basin so that I can know how much work needs to be done to clean things up!

First, let me zoom in to where the shoreline is:

Figure 2: Google Earth imagery of my parent's tidal basin, with the town home complex's shoreline outlined in red.

The truth is, I am only regularly picking up trash along a small segment of that red line shown in Figure 2, so I therefore plan to only measure the area of shoreline outlined in blue in Figure 3:

Figure 3: The blue line better represents the area of shoreline where I do my routine trash pick-up.

So how long is this line, then?  Using Google Earth, I can measure the true length (distance) of any location on the earth’s surface by using the “ruler” button on the toolbar above the satellite image.  I can also choose any measurement units I want.  In this case, I’ll choose feet.  Here we go:

Figure 4: I used the "ruler" tool (circled in red) to measure the distance of my parent's shoreline (outlined in yellow), which resulted in a length of about 584 feet.

The total length of the shoreline that I do a routine trash-pickup on is about 384 feet, as shown in Figure 4.

Now let’s measure the total length of the shoreline of the tidal basin.

Figure 5: The total length of the shoreline of the tidal basin that parent's live along is about 5,296 feet, as measured using the "ruler" tool in Google Earth.

The result is that the total length of the tidal basin that my parents live along is about 5,296 feet.

Since I’m assuming that 584 feet of shoreline accumulates 1 thirteen-gallon trash bag’s worth of garbage, then I can assume that the shoreline along the tidal basin outlined in Figure 5 produces about 9 bags of garbage per week:

5,296 feet/584 feet ~ 9 thirteen-gallon trash bags per week

Yikes!  There’s work to be done!  I can thank Google Earth for providing me a quick and ready tool to plan what work needs to be done, where, and how much.

See you along the shore!

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