1.5 The Power of Maps

Understanding Maps

A map can be defined as a graphic representation of the real world. Because of the infinite nature of our Universe, it is impossible to capture all of the complexity found in the real world. For example, topographic maps abstract the three-dimensional real world at a reduced scale on a two-dimensional plane of paper.

Maps are used to display both cultural and physical features of the environment. Standard topographic maps show a variety of information including roads, land-use classification, elevation, rivers and other water bodies, political boundaries, and the identification of houses and other types of buildings. Some maps are created with particular goals in mind, with an intended purpose.

Most maps allow us to specify the location of points on the Earth’s surface using a coordinate system. For a two-dimensional map, this coordinate system can use simple geometric relationships between the perpendicular axes on a grid system to define spatial location. Two types of coordinate systems are currently in general use in geography: the geographical coordinate system and the rectangular (also called Cartesian) coordinate system.

Geographic Coordinate Systems

The geographic coordinate system measures location from only two values, despite the fact that the locations are described for a three-dimensional surface. The two values used to define location are both measured relative to the polar axis of the Earth. The two measures used in the geographic coordinate system are called latitude and longitude.

Latitude is an angular measurement north or south of the equator relative to a point found at the center of the Earth. This central point is also located on the Earth’s rotational or polar axis. The equator is the starting point for the measurement of latitude. The equator has a value of zero degrees. A line of latitude or parallel of 30° North has an angle that is 30° north of the plane represented by the equator. The maximum value that latitude can attain is either 90° North or South. These lines of latitude run parallel to the rotational axis of the Earth.

Lines connecting points of the same latitude, called parallels, has lines running parallel to each other. The only parallel that is also a great circle is the equator. All other parallels are small circles. The following are the most important parallel lines:

  • Equator, 0 degrees
  • Tropic of Cancer, 23.5 degrees N
  • Tropic of Capricorn, 23.5 degrees S
  • Arctic Circle, 66.5 degrees N
  • Antarctic Circle, 66.5 degrees S
  • North Pole, 90 degrees N (infinitely small circle)
  • South Pole, 90 degrees S (infinitely small circle)

Longitude is the angular measurement east and west of the Prime Meridian. The position of the Prime Meridian was determined by international agreement to be in-line with the location of the former astronomical observatory at Greenwich, England. Because the Earth’s circumference is similar to a circle, it was decided to measure longitude in degrees. The number of degrees found in a circle is 360. The Prime Meridian has a value of zero degrees. A line of longitude or meridian of 45° West has an angle that is 45° west of the plane represented by the Prime Meridian. The maximum value that a meridian of longitude can have is 180° which is the distance halfway around a circle. This meridian is called the International Date Line. Designations of west and east are used to distinguish where a location is found relative to the Prime Meridian. For example, all of the locations in North America have a longitude that is designated west.

At 180 degrees of the Prime Meridian in the Pacific Ocean is the International Date Line. The line determines where the new day begins in the world. Now because of this, the International Date Line is not a straight line, rather it follows national borders so that a country is not divided into two separate days.

Ultimately, when parallel and meridian lines are combined, the result is a geographic grid system that allows users to determine their exact location on the planet.

Great and Small Circles

Much of Earth’s grid system is based on the location of the North Pole, South Pole, and the Equator. The poles are an imaginary line running from the axis of Earth’s rotation. The plane of the equator is an imaginary horizontal line that cuts the earth into two halves. This brings up the topic of great and small circles. A great circle is any circle that divides the earth into a circumference of two halves. It is also the largest circle that can be drawn on a sphere. The line connecting any points along a great circle is also the shortest distance between those two points.

Examples of great circles include the Equator, all lines of longitude, the line that divides the earth into day and night called the circle of illumination, and the plane of the ecliptic, which divides the earth into equal halves along the equator. Small circles are circles that cut the earth, but not into equal halves.

Time Zones

Before the late nineteenth century, timekeeping was primarily a local phenomenon. Each town would set their clocks according to the motions of the Sun. Noon was defined as the time when the Sun reached its maximum altitude above the horizon. Cities and towns would assign a clockmaker to calibrate a town clock to these solar motions. This town clock would then represent “official” time, and the citizens would set their watches and clocks accordingly.

The ladder half of the nineteenth century was a time of increased movement of humans. In the United States and Canada, large numbers of people were moving west and settlements in these areas began expanding rapidly. To support these new settlements, railroads moved people and resources between the various cities and towns. However, because of the nature of how local time was kept, the railroads experience significant problems in constructing timetables for the various stops. Timetables could only become more efficient if the towns and cities adopted some standard method of keeping time.

In 1878, Canadian Sir Sanford Fleming suggested a system of worldwide time zones that would simplify the keeping of time across the Earth. Fleming proposed that the globe should be divided into 24 time zones, every 15 degrees of longitude in width. Since the world rotates once every 24 hours on its axis and there are 360 degrees of longitude, each hour of Earth rotation represents 15 degrees of longitude.

Railroad companies in Canada and the United States began using Fleming’s time zones in 1883. In 1884, an International Prime Meridian Conference was held in Washington D.C. to adopt the standardized method of timekeeping and determined the location of the Prime Meridian. Conference members agreed that the longitude of Greenwich, England would become zero degrees longitude and established the 24 time zones relative to the Prime Meridian. It was also proposed that the measurement of time on the Earth would be made relative to the astronomical measurements at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. This time standard was called Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

Today, many nations operate on variations of the time zones suggested by Sir Fleming. In this system, time in the various zones is measured relative the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) standard at the Prime Meridian. Coordinated Universal Time became the standard legal reference of time all over the world in 1972. UTC is determined from atomic clocks that are coordinated by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) located in France. The numbers located at the bottom of the time zone map indicate how many hours each zone is earlier (negative sign) or later (positive sign) than the Coordinated Universal Time standard. Also, note that national boundaries and political matters influence the shape of the time zone boundaries. For example, China uses a single time zone (eight hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time) instead of five different time zones.

Coordinate Systems and Map Projections

Depicting the Earth’s three-dimensional surface on a two-dimensional map creates a variety of distortions that involve distance, area, and direction. It is possible to create maps that are somewhat equidistance. However, even these types of maps have some form of distance distortion. Equidistance maps can only control distortion along either lines of latitude or longitude. Distance is often correct on equidistance maps only in the direction of latitude.

On a map that has a large scale, 1:125,000 or larger, distance distortion is usually insignificant. An example of a large-scale map is a standard topographic map. On these maps measuring straight line distance is simple. Distance is first measured on the map using a ruler. This measurement is then converted into a real-world distance using the map’s scale. For example, if we measured a distance of 10 centimeters on a map that had a scale of 1:10,000, we would multiply 10 (distance) by 10,000 (scale). Thus, the actual distance in the real world would be 100,000 centimeters.

Measuring distance along map features that are not straight is a little more difficult. One technique that can be employed for this task is to use several straight-line segments. The accuracy of this method is dependent on the number of straight-line segments used. Another method for measuring curvilinear map distances is to use a mechanical device called an opisometer. This device uses a small rotating wheel that records the distance traveled. The recorded distance is measured by this device either in centimeters or inches.

Distance on Maps

Depicting the Earth’s three-dimensional surface on a two-dimensional map creates a variety of distortions that involve distance, area, and direction. It is possible to create maps that are somewhat equidistance. However, even these types of maps have some form of distance distortion. Equidistance maps can only control distortion along either lines of latitude or longitude. Distance is often correct on equidistance maps only in the direction of latitude.

On a map that has a large scale, 1:125,000 or larger, distance distortion is usually insignificant. An example of a large-scale map is a standard topographic map. On these maps measuring straight line distance is simple. Distance is first measured on the map using a ruler. This measurement is then converted into a real-world distance using the map’s scale. For example, if we measured a distance of 10 centimeters on a map that had a scale of 1:10,000, we would multiply 10 (distance) by 10,000 (scale). Thus, the actual distance in the real world would be 100,000 centimeters.

Measuring distance along map features that are not straight is a little more difficult. One technique that can be employed for this task is to use several straight-line segments. The accuracy of this method is dependent on the number of straight-line segments used. Another method for measuring curvilinear map distances is to use a mechanical device called an opisometer. This device uses a small rotating wheel that records the distance traveled. The recorded distance is measured by this device either in centimeters or inches.

Direction on Maps

Like distance, direction is difficult to measure on maps because of the distortion produced by projection systems. However, this distortion is quite small on maps with scales larger than 1:125,000. Direction is usually measured relative to the location of the North or South Pole. Directions determined from these locations are said to be relative to True North or True South. The magnetic poles can also be used to measure direction. However, these points on the Earth are located in spatially different spots from the geographic North and South Pole.

Mapping Our World

Have you ever found driving directions and maps online, used a smartphone to ‘check-in’ to your favorite restaurant, or entered a town name or zip code to retrieve the local weather forecast?

Every time you and millions of other users perform these tasks, you are making use of Geographic Information Science (GIScience) and related spatial technologies. Many of these technologies, such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and in-vehicle navigation units, are very well-known, and you can probably recall the last time you have used them.

Other applications and services that are the products of GIScience are a little less obvious, but they are every bit as common. If you are connected to the Internet, you are making use of geospatial technologies right now. Every time your browser requests a web page from a Content Delivery Network (CDN), a geographic lookup occurs and the server you are connected to contacts other servers that are closest to it and retrieves the information. This happens so that the delay between your request to view the data and the data being sent to you is as short as possible.

GIScience and the related technologies are everywhere, and we use them every day. When it comes to information, “spatial is special.” Reliance on spatial attributes is what separates geographic information from other types of information. There are several distinguishing properties of geographic information. Understanding them, and their implications for the practice of geographic information science is a key utilizing geographic data.

  • Geographic data represent spatial locations and non-spatial attributes measured at certain times.
  • Geographic space is continuous.
  • Geographic space is nearly spherical.
  • Geographic data tend to be spatially dependent.

Spatial attributes tell us where things are, or where things were at the time the data were collected. By merely including spatial attributes, geographic data allow us to ask a plethora of geographic questions. For example, we might ask, “are gas prices in Puyallup high?” The interactive map from GasBuddy.com can help us with such a question while enabling us to generate many other spatial inquiries related to the geographic variation in fuel prices.

Another essential characteristic of geographic space is that it is “continuous.” Although the Earth has valleys, canyons, caves, oceans, and more, there are no places on Earth without a location, and connections exist from one place to another. Outside of science fiction, there are no tears in the fabric of space-time. Modern technology can measure location very precisely, making it possible to generate incredibly detailed depictions of geographic feature location (e.g., of the coastline of the eastern U.S). It is often possible to measure so precisely that we collect more location data than we can store and much more than is useful for practical applications. How much information is useful to store or to display in a map will depend on the map scale (how much of the world we represent within a fixed display such as the size of your computer screen) as well as on the map’s purpose.

In addition to being continuous, geographic data also tend to be spatially dependent. More simply, “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things” (which leads to an expectation that things that are near to one another tend to be more alike than things that are far apart). How alike things are in relation to their proximity to other things can be measured by a statistical calculation known as spatial autocorrelation. Without this fundamental property, geographic information science as we know it today would not be possible.

Geographic data comes in many types, from many different sources and captured using many techniques; they are collected, sold, and distributed by a wide array of public and private entities.

In general, we can divide the collection of geographic data into two main types:

  • Directly collected data
  • Remotely sensed data

Directly collected data are generated at the source of the phenomena being measured. Examples of directly collected data include measurements such as temperature readings at specific weather stations, elevations recorded by visiting the location of interest, or the position of a grizzly bear equipped with a GPS-enabled collar. Also, included here are data derived from surveys (e.g., the census) or observation (e.g., Audubon Christmas bird count).

Remotely sensed data are measured from remote distances without any direct contact with the phenomena or need to visit the locations of interest. Satellite images, sonar readings, and radar are all forms of remotely sensed data.

Maps are both the raw material and the product of geographic information systems (GIS). All maps represent features and characteristics of locations, and that representation depends upon data relevant at a particular time. All maps are also selective; they do not show us everything about the place depicted; they show only the particular features and characteristics that their maker decided to include. Maps are often categorized into reference or thematic maps based upon the producer’s decision about what to include and the expectations about how the map will be used. The prototypical reference map depicts the location of “things” that are usually visible in the world; examples include road maps and topographic maps depicting terrain.

Thematic maps, in contrast, typically depict “themes.” They generally are more abstract, involving more processing and interpretation of data, and often depict concepts that are not directly visible; examples include maps of income, health, climate, or ecological diversity. There is no clear-cut line between reference and thematic maps, but the categories are useful to recognize because they relate directly to how the maps are intended to be used and to decisions that their cartographers have made in the process of shrinking and abstracting aspects of the world to generate the map. Different types of thematic maps include:

  • Choropleth – a thematic map that uses tones or colors to represent spatial data as average values per unit area
  • Proportional symbol – uses symbols of different sizes to represent data associated with different areas or locations within the map
  • Isopleth– also known as contour maps or isopleth maps depict smooth continuous phenomena such as precipitation or elevation
  • Dot – uses a dot symbol to show the presence of a feature or phenomenon – dot maps rely on a visual scatter to show a spatial pattern
  • Dasymetric – an alternative to a choropleth map but instead of mapping the data so that the region appears uniform, ancillary information is used to model the internal distribution of the data

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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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