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World map by Gerard van Schagen, Amsterdam, 1689 World Map 1689.JPG
World map by Gerard van Schagen, Amsterdam, 1689
World map from 2016 CIA World Factbook Map of the world by the US Gov as of 2016.svg
World map from 2016 CIA World Factbook

A map is a symbolic depiction emphasizing relationships between elements of some space, such as objects, regions, or themes.


Many maps are static, fixed to paper or some other durable medium, while others are dynamic or interactive. Although most commonly used to depict geography, maps may represent any space, real or fictional, without regard to context or scale, such as in brain mapping, DNA mapping, or computer network topology mapping. The space being mapped may be two dimensional, such as the surface of the earth, three dimensional, such as the interior of the earth, or even more abstract spaces of any dimension, such as arise in modeling phenomena having many independent variables.

Although the earliest maps known are of the heavens, geographic maps of territory have a very long tradition and exist from ancient times. The word "map" comes from the medieval Latin Mappa mundi, wherein mappa meant napkin or cloth and mundi the world. Thus, "map" became a shortened term referring to a two-dimensional representation of the surface of the world.


Muhammad al-Idrisi's Tabula Rogeriana (1154), one of the most advanced early world maps. TabulaRogeriana upside-down.jpg
Muhammad al-Idrisi's Tabula Rogeriana (1154), one of the most advanced early world maps.

Geographic maps

A celestial map from the 17th century, by the cartographer Frederik de Wit Planisphaeri coeleste.jpg
A celestial map from the 17th century, by the cartographer Frederik de Wit

Cartography or map-making is the study and practice of crafting representations of the Earth upon a flat surface (see History of cartography), and one who makes maps is called a cartographer.

Road maps are perhaps the most widely used maps today, and form a subset of navigational maps, which also include aeronautical and nautical charts, railroad network maps, and hiking and bicycling maps. In terms of quantity, the largest number of drawn map sheets is probably made up by local surveys, carried out by municipalities, utilities, tax assessors, emergency services providers, and other local agencies. Many national surveying projects have been carried out by the military, such as the British Ordnance Survey: a civilian government agency, internationally renowned for its comprehensively detailed work.

In addition to location information, maps may also be used to portray contour lines indicating constant values of elevation, temperature, rainfall, etc.

Orientation of maps

The Hereford Mappa Mundi from about 1300, Hereford Cathedral, England, is a classic "T-O" map with Jerusalem at centre, east toward the top, Europe the bottom left and Africa on the right. Hereford-Karte.jpg
The Hereford Mappa Mundi from about 1300, Hereford Cathedral, England, is a classic "T-O" map with Jerusalem at centre, east toward the top, Europe the bottom left and Africa on the right.

The orientation of a map is the relationship between the directions on the map and the corresponding compass directions in reality. The word "orient" is derived from Latin oriens, meaning east. In the Middle Ages many maps, including the T and O maps, were drawn with east at the top (meaning that the direction "up" on the map corresponds to East on the compass). The most common cartographic convention, is that north is at the top of a map.

Maps not oriented with north at the top:

Scale and accuracy

Many maps are drawn to a scale expressed as a ratio, such as 1:10,000, which means that 1 unit of measurement on the map corresponds to 10,000 of that same unit on the ground. The scale statement can be accurate when the region mapped is small enough for the curvature of the Earth to be neglected, such as a city map. Mapping larger regions, where curvature cannot be ignored, requires projections to map from the curved surface of the Earth to the plane. The impossibility of flattening the sphere to the plane without distortion means that the map cannot have constant scale. Rather, on most projections the best that can be attained is accurate scale along one or two paths on the projection. Because scale differs everywhere, it can only be measured meaningfully as point scale per location. Most maps strive to keep point scale variation within narrow bounds. Although the scale statement is nominal it is usually accurate enough for most purposes unless the map covers a large fraction of the earth. At the scope of a world map, scale as a single number is practically meaningless throughout most of the map. Instead, it usually refers to the scale along the equator.

Cartogram: The EU distorted to show population distributions as of 2008. EU Pop2008 1024.PNG
Cartogram: The EU distorted to show population distributions as of 2008.

Some maps, called cartograms, have the scale deliberately distorted to reflect information other than land area or distance. For example, this map (at the right) of Europe has been distorted to show population distribution, while the rough shape of the continent is still discernible.

Another example of distorted scale is the famous London Underground map. The basic geographical structure is respected but the tube lines (and the River Thames) are smoothed to clarify the relationships between stations. Near the center of the map stations are spaced out more than near the edges of map.

Further inaccuracies may be deliberate. For example, cartographers may simply omit military installations or remove features solely in order to enhance the clarity of the map. For example, a road map may not show railroads, smaller waterways or other prominent non-road objects, and even if it does, it may show them less clearly (e.g. dashed or dotted lines/outlines) than the main roads. Known as decluttering, the practice makes the subject matter that the user is interested in easier to read, usually without sacrificing overall accuracy. Software-based maps often allow the user to toggle decluttering between ON, OFF and AUTO as needed. In AUTO the degree of decluttering is adjusted as the user changes the scale being displayed.

Map projection

Geographic maps use a projection to translating the three-dimensional real surface of the geoid to a two-dimensional picture. Projection always distorts the surface. There are many ways to apportion the distortion, and so there are many map projections. Which projection to use depends on the purpose of the map.


The various features shown on a map are represented by conventional signs or symbols. For example, colors can be used to indicate a classification of roads. Those signs are usually explained in the margin of the map, or on a separately published characteristic sheet. [2]

Some cartographers prefer to make the map cover practically the entire screen or sheet of paper, leaving no room "outside" the map for information about the map as a whole. These cartographers typically place such information in an otherwise "blank" region "inside" the map cartouche, map legend, title, compass rose, bar scale, etc. In particular, some maps contain smaller "sub-maps" in otherwise blank regions—often one at a much smaller scale showing the whole globe and where the whole map fits on that globe, and a few showing "regions of interest" at a larger scale in order to show details that wouldn't otherwise fit. Occasionally sub-maps use the same scale as the large map—a few maps of the contiguous United States include a sub-map to the same scale for each of the two non-contiguous states.


To communicate spatial information effectively, features such as rivers, lakes, and cities need to be labeled. Over centuries cartographers have developed the art of placing names on even the densest of maps. Text placement or name placement can get mathematically very complex as the number of labels and map density increases. Therefore, text placement is time-consuming and labor-intensive, so cartographers and GIS users have developed automatic label placement to ease this process. [3] [4]

Map types

Map of large underwater features. (1995, NOAA) Ocean gravity map.gif
Map of large underwater features. (1995, NOAA)

Maps of the world or large areas are often either 'political' or 'physical'. The most important purpose of the political map is to show territorial borders; the purpose of the physical is to show features of geography such as mountains, soil type or land use including infrastructure such as roads, railroads and buildings. Topographic maps show elevations and relief with contour lines or shading. Geological maps show not only the physical surface, but characteristics of the underlying rock, fault lines, and subsurface structures.

Electronic maps

A USGS digital raster graphic. Topographic map example.png
A USGS digital raster graphic.

From the last quarter of the 20th century, the indispensable tool of the cartographer has been the computer. Much of cartography, especially at the data-gathering survey level, has been subsumed by Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The functionality of maps has been greatly advanced by technology simplifying the superimposition of spatially located variables onto existing geographical maps. Having local information such as rainfall level, distribution of wildlife, or demographic data integrated within the map allows more efficient analysis and better decision making. In the pre-electronic age such superimposition of data led Dr. John Snow to identify the location of an outbreak of cholera. Today, it is used by agencies of the human kind, as diverse as wildlife conservationists and militaries around the world.

Relief map Sierra Nevada Maps-for-free Sierra Nevada.png
Relief map Sierra Nevada

Even when GIS is not involved, most cartographers now use a variety of computer graphics programs to generate new maps.

Interactive, computerised maps are commercially available, allowing users to zoom in or zoom out (respectively meaning to increase or decrease the scale), sometimes by replacing one map with another of different scale, centered where possible on the same point. In-car global navigation satellite systems are computerised maps with route-planning and advice facilities which monitor the user's position with the help of satellites. From the computer scientist's point of view, zooming in entails one or a combination of:

  1. replacing the map by a more detailed one
  2. enlarging the same map without enlarging the pixels, hence showing more detail by removing less information compared to the less detailed version
  3. enlarging the same map with the pixels enlarged (replaced by rectangles of pixels); no additional detail is shown, but, depending on the quality of one's vision, possibly more detail can be seen; if a computer display does not show adjacent pixels really separate, but overlapping instead (this does not apply for an LCD, but may apply for a cathode ray tube), then replacing a pixel by a rectangle of pixels does show more detail. A variation of this method is interpolation.
A world map in PDF format. World.pdf
A world map in PDF format.

For example:

See also: Webpage (Graphics), PDF (Layers), MapQuest, Google Maps, Google Earth, OpenStreetMap or Yahoo! Maps.

Climatic maps

The maps that reflect the territorial distribution of climatic conditions based on the results of long-term observations are called climatic maps. These maps can be compiled both for individual climatic features (temperature, precipitation, humidity) and for combinations of them at the earth's surface and in the upper layers of the atmosphere. Climatic maps show climatic features across a large region and permit values of climatic features to be compared in different parts of the region. When generating the map, interpolation can be used to synthesize values where there are no measurements, under the assumption that conditions change smoothly.

Climatic maps generally apply to individual months and to the year as a whole, sometimes to the four seasons, to the growing period, and so forth. On maps compiled from the observations of ground meteorological stations, atmospheric pressure is converted to sea level. Air temperature maps are compiled both from the actual values observed on the surface of the earth and from values converted to sea level. The pressure field in free atmosphere is represented either by maps of the distribution of pressure at different standard altitudes—for example, at every kilometer above sea level—or by maps of baric topography on which altitudes (more precisely geopotentials) of the main isobaric surfaces (for example, 900, 800, and 700 millibars) counted off from sea level are plotted. The temperature, humidity, and wind on aeroclimatic maps may apply either to standard altitudes or to the main isobaric surfaces.

Isolines are drawn on maps of such climatic features as the long-term mean values (of atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, total precipitation, and so forth) to connect points with equal values of the feature in question—for example, isobars for pressure, isotherms for temperature, and isohyets for precipitation. Isoamplitudes are drawn on maps of amplitudes (for example, annual amplitudes of air temperature—that is, the differences between the mean temperatures of the warmest and coldest month). Isanomals are drawn on maps of anomalies (for example, deviations of the mean temperature of each place from the mean temperature of the entire latitudinal zone). Isolines of frequency are drawn on maps showing the frequency of a particular phenomenon (for example, annual number of days with a thunderstorm or snow cover). Isochrones are drawn on maps showing the dates of onset of a given phenomenon (for example, the first frost and appearance or disappearance of the snow cover) or the date of a particular value of a meteorological element in the course of a year (for example, passing of the mean daily air temperature through zero). Isolines of the mean numerical value of wind velocity or isotachs are drawn on wind maps (charts); the wind resultants and directions of prevailing winds are indicated by arrows of different length or arrows with different plumes; lines of flow are often drawn. Maps of the zonal and meridional components of wind are frequently compiled for the free atmosphere. Atmospheric pressure and wind are usually combined on climatic maps. Wind roses, curves showing the distribution of other meteorological elements, diagrams of the annual course of elements at individual stations, and the like are also plotted on climatic maps.

Maps of climatic regionalization, that is, division of the earth's surface into climatic zones and regions according to some classification of climates, are a special kind of climatic map.

Climatic maps are often incorporated into climatic atlases of varying geographic range (globe, hemispheres, continents, countries, oceans) or included in comprehensive atlases. Besides general climatic maps, applied climatic maps and atlases have great practical value. Aeroclimatic maps, aeroclimatic atlases, and agroclimatic maps are the most numerous.

Non-geographical spatial maps

Maps exist of the Solar System, and other cosmological features such as star maps. In addition maps of other bodies such as the Moon and other planets are technically not geo graphical maps.

Topological maps

In a topological map, like this one showing inventory locations, the distances between locations is not important. Only the layout and connectivity between them matters. Inventory Locations Represented as a Map.png
In a topological map, like this one showing inventory locations, the distances between locations is not important. Only the layout and connectivity between them matters.

Diagrams such as schematic diagrams and Gantt charts and treemaps display logical relationships between items, rather than geographical relationships. Topological in nature, only the connectivity is significant. The London Underground map and similar subway maps around the world are a common example of these maps.

General-purpose maps

General-purpose maps provide many types of information on one map. Most atlas maps, wall maps, and road maps fall into this category. The following are some features that might be shown on general-purpose maps: bodies of water, roads, railway lines, parks, elevations, towns and cities, political boundaries, latitude and longitude, national and provincial parks. These maps give a broad understanding of location and features of an area. The reader may gain an understanding of the type of landscape, the location of urban places, and the location of major transportation routes all at once.

List of map types

Some countries required that all published maps represent their national claims regarding border disputes. For example:

In 2010, the People's Republic of China began requiring that all online maps served from within China be hosted there, making them subject to Chinese laws. [7]

See also

Map designing and types
Map history
Related topics

Related Research Articles

Cartography The study and practice of making maps

Cartography is the study and practice of making maps. Combining science, aesthetics, and technique, cartography builds on the premise that reality can be modeled in ways that communicate spatial information effectively.

Gall–Peters projection An equal-area, rectangular map projection

The Gall–Peters projection is a rectangular map projection that maps all areas such that they have the correct sizes relative to each other. Like any equal-area projection, it achieves this goal by distorting most shapes. The projection is a particular example of the cylindrical equal-area projection with latitudes 45° north and south as the regions on the map that have no distortion.

Map projection Systematic representation of the surface of a sphere or ellipsoid onto a plane

In cartography, a map projection is a way to flatten a globe's surface into a plane in order to make a map. This requires a systematic transformation of the latitudes and longitudes of locations from the surface of the globe into locations on a plane. All projections of a sphere on a plane necessarily distort the surface in some way and to some extent. Depending on the purpose of the map, some distortions are acceptable and others are not; therefore, different map projections exist in order to preserve some properties of the sphere-like body at the expense of other properties. Every distinct map projection distorts in a distinct way, by definition. The study of map projections is the characterization of these distortions. There is no limit to the number of possible map projections. Projections are a subject of several pure mathematical fields, including differential geometry, projective geometry, and manifolds. However, "map projection" refers specifically to a cartographic projection.

Topography The study of the shape and features of the surface of the Earth and other observable astronomical objects

Topography is the study of the shape and features of land surfaces. The topography of an area could refer to the surface shapes and features themselves, or a description.

A GIS file format is a standard of encoding geographical information into a computer file. They are created mainly by government mapping agencies or by GIS software developers.

2.5D Simulation of the appearance of being three-dimensional

The two-and-a-half-dimensional perspective is either 2D graphical projections and similar techniques used to cause images or scenes to simulate the appearance of being three-dimensional (3D) when in fact they are not, or gameplay in an otherwise three-dimensional video game that is restricted to a two-dimensional plane with a limited access to the third dimension. By contrast, games using 3D computer graphics without such restrictions are said to use true 3D.

Contour line line connecting points of the same value on a map

A contour line of a function of two variables is a curve along which the function has a constant value, so that the curve joins points of equal value. It is a plane section of the three-dimensional graph of the function f(xy) parallel to the (xy)-plane. In cartography, a contour line joins points of equal elevation (height) above a given level, such as mean sea level. A contour map is a map illustrated with contour lines, for example a topographic map, which thus shows valleys and hills, and the steepness or gentleness of slopes. The contour interval of a contour map is the difference in elevation between successive contour lines.

World map map of the surface of the Earth

A world map is a map of most or all of the surface of Earth. World maps form a distinctive category of maps due to the problem of projection. Maps by necessity distort the presentation of the earth's surface. These distortions reach extremes in a world map. The many ways of projecting the earth reflect diverse technical and aesthetic goals for world maps.

Animated mapping is the application of animation, either computer or video, to add a temporal component to a map displaying change in some dimension. Most commonly the change is shown over time, generally at a greatly changed scale. An example would be the animation produced after the 2004 tsunami showing how the waves spread across the Indian Ocean.

Equirectangular projection map projection that maps meridians and parallels to vertical and horizontal straight lines, respectively, producing a rectangular grid

The equirectangular projection is a simple map projection attributed to Marinus of Tyre, who Ptolemy claims invented the projection about AD 100. The projection maps meridians to vertical straight lines of constant spacing, and circles of latitude to horizontal straight lines of constant spacing. The projection is neither equal area nor conformal. Because of the distortions introduced by this projection, it has little use in navigation or cadastral mapping and finds its main use in thematic mapping. In particular, the plate carrée has become a standard for global raster datasets, such as Celestia and NASA World Wind, because of the particularly simple relationship between the position of an image pixel on the map and its corresponding geographic location on Earth.

Thematic map map specifically designed to show a particular theme connected with a specific geographic area

A thematic map is a type of map specifically designed to show a particular theme connected with a specific geographic area, such as temperature variation, rainfall distribution or population density.

The history of cartography traces the development of cartography, or mapmaking technology, in human history. Maps have been one of the most important human inventions for millennia, allowing humans to explain and navigate their way through the world. The earliest archaeological maps include cave paintings, to ancient maps of Babylon, Greece, China, and India. In their most simple form maps are two dimensional constructs, however since the age of Classical Greece maps have also been projected onto a three-dimensional sphere known as a globe. In the 21st century, with the onset of the Information Age and the subsequent increase in computing power, maps can now be digitized in numerical form, transmitted and updated via satellite GPS.

Chamberlin trimetric projection

The Chamberlin trimetric projection is a map projection where three points are fixed on the globe and the points on the sphere are mapped onto a plane by triangulation. It was developed in 1946 by Wellman Chamberlin for the National Geographic Society. Chamberlin was chief cartographer for the Society from 1964 to 1971. The projection's principal feature is that it compromises between distortions of area, direction, and distance. A Chamberlin trimetric map therefore gives an excellent overall sense of the region being mapped. Many National Geographic Society maps of single continents use this projection.

Pictorial map Map that uses pictures to represent features

Pictorial maps depict a given territory with a more artistic rather than technical style. It is a type of map in contrast to road map, atlas, or topographic map. The cartography can be a sophisticated 3-D perspective landscape or a simple map graphic enlivened with illustrations of buildings, people and animals. They can feature all sorts of varied topics like historical events, legendary figures or local agricultural products and cover anything from an entire continent to a college campus. Drawn by specialized artists and illustrators, pictorial maps are a rich, centuries-old tradition and a diverse art form that ranges from cartoon maps on restaurant placemats to treasured art prints in museums.

Critical cartography is a set of mapping practices and methods of analysis grounded in critical theory, specifically the thesis that maps reflect and perpetuate relations of power, typically in favor of a society's dominant group. Critical cartographers aim to reveal the “‘hidden agendas of cartography’ as tools of socio-spatial power”. While the term "critical cartography" often refers to a body of theoretical literature, critical cartographers also call for practical applications of critical cartographic theory, such as counter-mapping, participatory mapping, and neogeography.

Orienteering map map used in orienteering

An orienteering map is a map specially prepared for use in orienteering competitions. It is a topographic map with extra details to help the competitor navigate through the competition area.

Planetary cartography, or cartography of extraterrestrial objects (CEO), is the cartography of solid objects outside of the Earth. Planetary maps can show any spatially mapped characteristic for extraterrestrial surfaces.

Cartographic generalization, or map generalization, includes all changes in a map that are made when one derives a smaller-scale map from a larger-scale map or map data, or vice versa. Whether done manually by a cartographer or by a computer or set of algorithms, generalization seeks to abstract spatial information at a high level of detail to information that can be rendered on a map at a lower level of detail. For example, we might have the outlines of all of the thousands of buildings in a region, but we wish to make a map of the whole city no more than a few inches wide. Instead of throwing out the building information, or trying to render it all at once, we could generalize the data into some sort of outline of the urbanized area of the region.

Cartography of China

Chinese cartography began in the 5th century BC during the Warring States period when cartographers started to make maps of the Earth's surface. Its scope extended beyond China's borders with the expansion of the Chinese Empire under the Han dynasty. By the 11th century during the Song dynasty highly-accurate maps drawn on grids were produced. During the 15th century, the Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He went on a series of voyages to the South China Sea, Indian Ocean, and beyond and maps for areas outside of China were produced, although world maps covering territories known to the Chinese outside of China existed as early as the Tang dynasty.

Web Mercator projection Mercator projection variant

Web Mercator, Google Web Mercator, Spherical Mercator, WGS 84 Web Mercator or WGS 84/Pseudo-Mercator is a variant of the Mercator projection and is the de facto standard for Web mapping applications. It rose to prominence when Google Maps adopted it in 2005. It is used by virtually all major online map providers, including Google Maps, Mapbox, Bing Maps, OpenStreetMap, Mapquest, Esri, and many others. Its official EPSG identifier is EPSG:3857, although others have been used historically.


  1. The orientation of the world in the African thought
  2. Ordnance Survey, Explorer Map Symbols Archived 3 April 2016 at the Wayback Machine ; Swisstopo, Conventional Signs Archived 28 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine ; United States Geological Survey, Topographic Map Symbols Archived 1 June 2008 at the Wayback Machine .
  3. Imhof, E., “Die Anordnung der Namen in der Karte,” Annuaire International de Cartographie II, Orell-Füssli Verlag, Zürich, 93–129, 1962.
  4. Freeman, H., Map data processing and the annotation problem, Proc. 3rd Scandinavian Conf. on Image Analysis, Chartwell-Bratt Ltd. Copenhagen, 1983.
  5. Chappell, Bill (12 April 2014). "Google Maps Displays Crimean Border Differently In Russia, U.S." . Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  6. Wagstaff, Jeremy (23 March 2012). "Google charts a careful course through Asia's maps". Reuters . Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  7. Guanqun, Wang (19 May 2010). "China issues new rules on Internet map publishing". Xinhua News Agency . Archived from the original on 27 May 2016. Retrieved 27 July 2016.