Geographic information systems (GIS) are computer-based systems used to collect, store, and display data sets related to positions on the Earth’s surface.

One important use of GIS involves creating time-lapse photography that shows processes occurring over large areas and long periods of time. In time-lapse imagery, individual frames of visual data can be captured at a slower rate and then combined and viewed at a faster rate.

For example, data showing the movement of fluid in ocean currents or air currents help scientists better understand how moisture and heat energy move around the globe. These convection currents of air and water regulate local weather conditions and global climate patterns.

  1. Watch the video above. What are some natural phenomena mapped using GIS? What are some human phenomena visible in the time-lapse imagery?

    • Answer

      Natural phenomena include:

      • auroras (Northern and Souther lights
      • ocean currents
      • air currents

      Artificial or human-created phenomena include:

      • electric light from industrialized areas
      • air currents made visible with clouds contain manufactured gases such as vehicle exhaust or factory emissions

  2. Interactive maps use GIS technology. How have you used interactive maps?

    • Answer

      Answers vary but could include the following:

      • using the mapping or navigation tool on a mobile phone
      • using a handheld GPS device to navigate or mark waypoints
      • looking up political or geographic information online
      • National Geographic's MapMaker Interactive

  3. Can two-dimensional maps be converted into data that can be used in new GIS applications? How?

    • Answer

      Yes. To be used in a new GIS application, existing maps must be scanned and converted to digital information. Then the scale of the different data sources must be aligned.

air current

flowing movement of air within a larger body of air.


all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

convection current

movement of a fluid from a cool area to a warm area.

data set

collection of data, usually presented in list form.


material that is able to flow and change shape.


any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.

heat energy

a form of energy that is transferred by a difference in temperature



ocean current

continuous, predictable, directional movement of seawater.

time-lapse photography

photographing of a slow and continuous process at regular intervals, for projection at a higher speed.


state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.


This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-0840250. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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