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Why Our Topographic Maps Look The Way They Do

October 11, 2017 2 min read

If you are not familiar with topographic data or the various methods of processing it, you might be wondering why our maps look the way they do. All those strange patterns, different color gradients, what's it all about?

The topographic map art we create is categorized as relief maps. Relief maps or elevation maps focus on visualizing variations in elevation across a landscape. This means that features in the landscape such as lakes and flat areas appear similar because relief maps display the relative elevation of a location. So areas of consistent elevation are displayed with similar values. This means that it can ( depending on the resolution of the elevation data) be difficult to detect the shoreline of a lake or a coastline.

We use two methods to visualize landscapes:
The first method involves color coding pixels. Our maps are images of data, this means that colors actually represent hight at that particular location. We assign each elevation value a color, darker color represent lower elevation and lighter colors represent higher elevations. When I say higher and lower elevations, and I am of course talking about the elevations for each landscape of data set we use to create our maps. Because this color coding is relative to the values elevations in a landscape, we can see the same colors for a map of Denmark as we see in a map of Switzerland. The difference in shades between the lighter and darker colors reveals the landscape.
read more about relief maps here

The second method we use to create our topographic art is to add a lighting effect which gives our maps a 3D texture. This lighting effect is commonly referred to as "hillshading". Hillshading calculates where a shadow would fall on the landscape based on the position of the sun at the particular time of the day. Read more about hillshading here