Web-based HGIS for Storytelling of Environmental Histories and Connections across the North Atlantic

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This is the first post in a five-part series showcasing the research coming out of three projects hosted at Nipissing University’s Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP) and supported by Kirsten Greer, Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Histories and Geographies of the Semi-Peripheries.

This article explores several Historical Geographic Information System (HGIS) modules created by Nipissing University’s Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP), written from the perspective of the organization’s GIS technician. My role was to showcase the research of several interconnected environmental history projects in an interactive and engaging way using two web-based GIS applications created by Esri: Story Maps and Web AppBuilder. This article will examine key features of each module and discuss how they were built. Our HGIS modules combine narrative with interactive maps and multimedia (images, audio, and video) to engage a wider audience than traditional forms of academic publication. In addition to introducing these modules, we seek to demonstrate ways in which other environmental history projects can leverage these same GIS tools to visualize and showcase their own research.

About CUSP and the HGIS Modules

Nipissing University’s CUSP, which includes partners both in the community and through various other academic institutions, carries out the research of the Canada Research Chair (CRC) program in Global Environmental Histories and Geographies of the Semi-Peripheries, overseen by Dr. Kirsten Greer (Departments of both Geography & History). This article will examine two of CUSP’s recently published HGIS modules: Empire Trees Climate and Historical Geographies of Extreme Weather Events. It will also provide a sneak peak of the module A Global Tradition,which is ongoing.

Cover images for each module. Using Esri’s Cascade Story Map template, the user can scroll down on the cover image to reveal the module’s contents.

Empire Trees Climate

Timbers from heritage buildings and shipwrecks
Surveys, photographs and watercolours of the historical landscape
Archived avian specimens and sound recordings

All of these “proxies” provide clues into past cultures and climates, including those in Atlantic Canada, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. Empire Trees Climate brings together approaches in historical geography, dendrochronology, marine archaeology, history, and GIS to uncover and interpret those clues for the purpose of better understanding contemporary cultures and climates.

The Empire Trees Climate module is organized by several tabs that each explore a component of the interdisciplinary project. This effect is accomplished using Esri’s Series Story Map template.

Empire Trees Climate is a large interdisciplinary research project. I made use of numerous Story Map templates and web app widgets to showcase the research and organize its data. The majority of the module’s layout was created using pre-existing templates, making it a prime example of what Story Maps can accomplish for other research projects of similar complexity regardless of GIS experience. The templates make it easy to embed media (including interactive maps, audio, images, and even other Story Maps) within your narrative.

A Journal Story Map template is shown below, used to display text alongside an interactive map built using Esri Web Appbuilder. The app allows users to listen to archival audio recordings of birds by selecting an icon on the map.

A screenshot of the “Echoes of Bermuda” tab, described above.

The screenshots below show more examples of other Story Map templates used in the module.

A mini-exhibit within the “Talkative Trees” tab that uses the Cascade Story Map template to compare modern and past landscapes by scrolling.
Our research team introduced using the Shortlist Story Map template. Clicking on a photo or icon retrieves a write-up about the person or place. Meet the team here!
A data warehouse containing all the GIS layers used throughout the module (Journal Story Map and Web Appbuilder).

My Favourite Part

My favourite part of the module, the “Vantages of Bermuda” tab, was also the most challenging to build. It is an example of a component that required more effort and GIS know-how to put together, while simultaneously exemplifying how versatile and custom-tailored Story Maps and Web Appbuilder can be. Within an interactive map, the user can compare layers of historical landscape watercolours, photographs, and cartographic materials against the backdrop of modern imagery.

A screenshot of the interactive map in Vantages of Bermuda.

The app works using a combination of widgets that were customized in Esri Web AppBuilder. Users can swipe a survey of their choice across the screen, revealing the survey or imagery underneath for easy comparison of landscape change over time (Swipe widget). The “Basemap” widget allows users to change the backdrop from satellite imagery to a topographic map, street map, or simple canvas. Selecting a coloured icon on the map will retrieve a pop-up containing a watercolour or photograph that has been geotagged to that location.

While adding and customizing widgets is relatively simple for any content creator to do, the prep work required to make our materials suitable for use in Web AppBuilder was the most intensive part of creating the app. Before I could integrate them, I had to preform georeferencing (surveys) and geotagging (photos and watercolours) processes within a desktop GIS application, such as ArcGIS desktop, or in ArcGIS Pro. More information on these processes and how we performed them can be found in our blog posts on georeferencing and geotagging.

Explore the Empire Trees Climate module here.

Historical Geographies of Extreme Weather Events

Historical Geographies of Extreme Weather Events interactively explores the impact of the 1839 Hurricane in the British North Atlantic through visualization of meteorological records and primary source materials such as newspaper accounts. This module heavily relies on interactive maps and the Cascade Story Map template to guide the reader through the event of the hurricane, as shown by the examples below.

A screenshot showing meteorological stations that recorded the storm, visualized using an interactive map embedded within the narrative to engage the audience.
The spatial distribution of newspaper accounts is interactively mapped to illustrate the influence of the hurricane.
A screenshot of the module narrative. Logbook accounts allow us to tell the story of how the hurricane progressed over time. As the user scrolls, the story jumps to the corresponding location on the map.

My Favourite Part

My favourite part of this module was built using the Journal Story Map template. The user scrolls down the side panel to continue the narrative. Meanwhile, the side map changes as the narrative progresses, zooming in and out, adding layers, and even opening pop-ups for the user to help guide them through the story.

A screenshot of the app. Certain pop-ups contain links that direct the user to the original source material, such as a newspaper clipping. Some of the newspaper clippings contain charts of meteorological data.
A screenshot showing event progression and more layers of digitized accounts.

Although the story is guided, the interactive side map allows the user to stop and examine all the visible data before continuing with the story. An overview map at the end, shown below, also allows the user to view all the spatial data at once.

An interactive overview of the hurricane. Created using Web Appbuilder.

Explore the Historical Geographies of Extreme Weather Events module here.

A Global Tradition: Historical Geographies of McGill University’s Field Stations

This ongoing project explores the establishment and contributions of three McGill University field stations in the 1950s-1970s:

  1. Humid Tropics Research Stations (Barbados)
  2. High Arctic Research Station (Axel Heiberg Island, Nunavut)
  3. Subarctic Research Station (Schefferville/Knob Lake, Quebec)

Founded by the Department of Geography in Montreal, these research stations served as sites of collaboration by scholars and students in climatology, biogeography, historical geography, glaciology, and geomorphology, all of which defined environmental change research during the Cold War. So, what do these research stations tell us about the histories of interdisciplinarity in (geographical) research, and how can we use these stories to be more reflexive of our own traditions in global environmental research?

Location of the McGill research stations.

This module organizes submodules of the different research stations using the Series: Side Accordion Story Map template, while the submodules themselves were created with a Cascade Story Map.

Screenshot of the module.

Expandable sections of text in the left side panel provide an introduction for each research station. The screen to the right changes according to the research station selected; we embedded our submodules here, but different media such as interactive maps can also be held here. Other examples of HGIS components within the submodules are shown below.

An embedded Tour Story Map within the Barbados submodule used as a “spatial slideshow” of the research team’s 2018 field and archive research on the island.
A Shortlist Story Map within the Barbados submodule visualizing weather station locations and history.
A Tour Story Map visualizes the reconnaissance expedition in 1959 that led to the establishment of the Arctic research station. The bar at the bottom follows the route taken in chronological order. 

My Favourite Part

A notable component of this work is an HGIS database that contains information pertaining to the Arctic station’s research during its pilot years (1959-1962), including field camp locations with any accompanying data, as well as specimen data retrieved from iDigBio. Digitized, downloadable reports record not only the data itself, but also the early field work methods employed by the station personnel.

An interactive HGIS database within the Arctic station submodule (ongoing). Created using the Journal Story Map template and Esri Web Appbuilder.

Explore the module A Global Tradition (in progress) here.

In Closing

Esri Story Maps has been a robust tool for disseminating our research projects to a wider audience, and we look forward to seeing and enjoying similar HGIS-based modules from other researchers within the environmental history community. 


Greer, K., Prescott, M., Csank, A., Calvert, K., Hemsworth, K., Maddison-MacFadyen, M., Smith, A., Monk, K., Muldoon, L., Morrison, S., & Mock, C. (June 2020). Empire, Trees, Climate (Version 1.0): Towards Critical Dendroprovenancing Using HGIS. North Bay: Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP), Nipissing University.

Greer, K., Prescott, M., Hemsworth, K., Thomson, L., Cameron, L., Chutko, K., Boutet, J.S., Keeling, A., & Muldoon, L. A Global Tradition: McGill University’s Field Stations and the Historical Geographies of Interdisciplinarity on the Environment (Version 1.0). North Bay: Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP), Nipissing University.

Mock, C., Prescott, M., Greer, K., Naylor, S., Hemsworth, K., Morrison, S., Maddison-MacFadyen, & Csank, A. (June 2020). Historical Geographies of Extreme Weather Events: Using the Archives to Retrace the 1839 Hurricane in the British North Atlantic. North Bay: Centre for Understanding Semi-Peripheries (CUSP), Nipissing University.

Modules above were created using ArcGIS Web AppBuilder and Story Maps software by Esri. ArcGIS® is the intellectual property of Esri and is used herein under license. Copyright © Esri. All rights reserved. For more information about Esri® software, please visit www.esri.com.

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Megan Jee

Megan Jee (formerly Prescott), HGIS Technician, Department of Geography, Nipissing University. Megan is a former MESc graduate student from the MES/MESc program at Nipissing University. She has been working with Dr. Kirsten Greer, CRC in Global Environmental Histories and Geographies, for over 6 years, experimenting, designing, and overseeing the creation of interactive HGIS prototypes of the interdisciplinary research projects emerging from Nipissing University’s Centre for Understanding Semi- Peripheries (CUSP). Megan is an invaluable team member, and really pushed the possibilities of combining historical narrative and primary source materials with geospatial data.

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