Where in the World Are My Field Plots? Using GPS Effectively in Environmental Field Studies

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Global positioning system (GPS) technology is rapidly replacing tape, compass, and traditional surveying instruments as the preferred tool for estimating the positions of environmental research sites. One important problem, however, is that it can be difficult to estimate the uncertainty of GPS-derived positions. Sources of error include various satellite- and site-related factors, such as forest canopy and topographic obstructions. In a case study from the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, hand-held, mapping-grade GPS receivers generally estimated positions with 1–5 m precision in open, unobstructed settings, and 20–30 m precision under forest canopy. Surveying-grade receivers achieved precisions of 10 cm or less, even in challenging terrain. Users can maximize the quality of their GPS measurements by “mission planning” to take advantage of high-quality satellite conditions. Repeated measurements and simultaneous data collection at multiple points can be used to assess accuracy and precision.