Beginner's Glossary Of Common Mapping Terms With Definition

Looking to understand common cartographic terms (aka, maps). We'll explain and give the definition of common mapping terms.

The convenience of having access to accurate maps cannot be overstated. Maps take the complexity out of the real world, whether we're trying to navigate a new neighborhood or locate a certain shop in a massive shopping center. 

Cartography is a complex process. A lot of lines and measures need to be drawn, and it's all important that they're done correctly. It's hardly surprising that the process of creating maps is intricate.

There isn't a shortcut to convey all parts of a map or the techniques and cartographic terms that go into making one. You can find a glossary of common mapping terminology below so you can get up to speed quickly.

Basic Mapping Terms

  • Base Map - As the name implies, a base map is an underlying layer that contains basic geographical data. When you superimpose additional layers on top of a base map, you provide context for the base map. References to fixed map features, such as highways, roads, lakes, rivers, and political borders, are what base maps are best at showing. For instance, you may utilize a base map depicting rivers, state lines, and highways to highlight all the hiking trails in a particular area. You may superimpose various overlays depicting the distribution of hiking trails on this base map. Types of terrain, views, trees, and animal tracks are all potential additional layers.
  • Coordinates - Coordinates, a pair or more numbers that specify a location with respect to a reference system, are used to quantify positions on the surface of the Earth. A Cartesian coordinate system, named after the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes of the 17th century, is the simplest of these systems. A Cartesian coordinate system consists of a grid in which the horizontal (x) and vertical (y) axes are joined together. The zero-point intersection of the x and y axes is known as the coordinate system's origin. 
  • Degree - You may pinpoint any location on Earth using latitude and longitude coordinates in a geographic coordinate system (GCS). In a GCS, coordinates are points on the Earth; hence angles are expressed in degrees with respect to the center of the Earth.
  • Elevation - Generally, elevation above or below sea level is reported in either meters or feet. A contour line links marked points whose elevation is the same. You might also show a map's elevation data as bands of continuous color or numerical values. Topographic maps are often used to describe maps that show elevation.
  • Latitude - On a globe or map, latitude indicates how far south or north of the Equator a specific place is. 
  • Legend - In the map legend, sometimes called a map key, each sign on the map has its meaning explained. It's common to hear the words "legend" and "key" used interchangeably, although some maps do have both. Some maps, for instance, may have as many as twenty distinct icons. It also requires more work for the reader to grasp each one thoroughly. So, a chart with all the map symbols is necessary for them to use. A map's legend serves this purpose.
  • Longitude - You can find a place's longitude by how far east or west it is from the prime meridian. Imaginary lines that circle the globe vertically (up and down) and intersect at the North and South Poles are used to calculate longitude. The names for these lines are meridians. One degree of longitude corresponds to precisely one meridian. It takes 360 degrees to get around the planet.

Study Of Mapping

  • Aeronautical Cartography - Aeronautical cartography is the practice of making aviation charts. Aeronautical charts are created to aid in the efficiency and safety of international air travel. Providing accurate and up-to-date charts is essential due to the rising operating altitude and speed of modern aircraft and the increasing air traffic congestion.
  • Bathymetry - "Bathymetry" refers to the art and science of measuring the depth of water in bodies such as oceans, lakes, and rivers. Like topographic maps, which use lines to depict the form and height of land objects, bathymetric maps employ lines to depict depth. Bathymetric measurements can also determine the ocean floor's topography, and scientists have used them to uncover fascinating facts about the ocean floor, such as the presence of hot springs, mountain ranges, extinct and active volcanoes, canyons, plains, and more.
  • Cartographer - Most cartographers specialize in either studying cartographic history or creating new maps using various tools and methods. There are a lot of people who play both roles. Cartographers are expected to be well-versed in both the tradition and practice of mapmaking and any new developments. 
  • Cartography - The International Cartographic Association defines cartography as the study of maps and "the ideation, creation, distribution of maps." A helpful way to think about cartography is as a process that connects cartographers, map readers, the environment studied, and the map.

Mapping Tools

  • Alidade - An alidade is an instrument for creating geologic and topographic maps in the field. The alidade is set up on a flat surface, and a piece of paper is placed below it so that a map may be drawn according to what is seen through it. You can create massive maps using the alidade. When it comes to remarkably detailed maps covering a limited region, it's common for 1 inch to represent 10 feet.
  • Altimeter - An altimeter is a tool used to determine how high above sea level a specific location is. Pilots of airplanes and spacecraft rely heavily on altimeters to keep tabs on their distance from the ground. The same altimeters pilots use are also used by skydivers and mountaineers to determine their exact position. Barometric altimeters are the most prevalent kind. Using atmospheric pressure, they can calculate height. Air pressure drops quite significantly when one ascends in altitude. The reason being air is less dense higher up. 
  • Sextant - An ancient navigation instrument, the sextant provides an angular based reading of altitude. A sextant measures the angular distance between an object in the sky, such as the moon, the sun, or another celestial body, and the horizon. Using that data, you may determine your precise latitude or location on Earth in relation to the Equator. Although sextants may provide precise position data, adjustments are usually necessary depending on the time of year and the astronomical body used as a reference. The sextant may seem confusing at first glance, but with enough education and skill, you can pinpoint your exact location with remarkable accuracy.

Type Of Maps

  • Aerial Map - Photographs taken from satellites or aircraft are used in aerial mapping, a method used to create maps and analyze geology. On the other hand, drones are a great alternative to airplanes and satellites for gathering high-resolution overhead photos for processing comprehensive aerial maps. Drones can quickly and accurately represent large expanses of terrain in 3D, enabling the creation of detailed maps. Automated mapping refers to making maps on the fly using a drone. Control points, known coordinates, or real physical markers are dispersed around the area to do this.
  • Cadastral Map - Since it depicts the locations of individual parcels of land in relation to one another and the roads in the immediate vicinity, cadastral mapping is among the most well-known types of cartography. One of the first kinds of mapping, cadastral records were created in ancient Egypt so that land title could be determined again when the Nile flooded each year. 
  • Choropleth Map - A choropleth map is a thematic map in which areas of the globe are assigned different colors, shadings, or patterns based on the value they represent. It is usual practice to use shades of a single color, with the darkest reflecting the greatest value. A choropleth map is suitable for showing data about geographical areas and regions, such as visually depicting differences across regions. Choropleth maps are often used to display data like population density, weather patterns, climate, and economic and social progress markers like GDP and life expectancy. A choropleth map is a good choice if you want to show land use and value variations, such as the quantity of parkland or the types of forests present. 
  • Forestry Map - Mostly, forestry maps have similarities with other sorts of maps, whether made for locals or vacationers. These maps are often easier to interpret than more specialized ones. Standard forestry maps include rudimentary map keys or legends. There may be a list of municipal or national identifiers. It is also usual practice to display any border elements. It's possible to convey density using forestry maps. In certain cases, you may see the whole forest density. One possibility is to combine data on mangroves, thick forests, and open woodlands into a single map. Some may demonstrate the abundance of a certain plant species in a region. Forests controlled by the government and frequented by tourists may need specialized forestry maps. Travelers can find a wealth of useful information on these maps. For instance, you may want to know where the nearest hotels or gas stations are. It's also possible that the forest's attractions, such as its waterfalls and hiking paths, will be included.
  • Slope Map - Slope maps display subtle variations in elevation. A slope map is used by water management planners, landscape designers, and architects to assess the potential of a given plot of land. Precise information is needed to create one of these maps. Several programs can generate slope maps from collected data by joining locations with the same elevation. Slope maps are beneficial for estimating water flow, which is only one of their many applications. Parking lots and structures may heave and move due to groundwater. The harm caused by storm runoff is often overlooked. In addition to showing elevation changes, a slope map may also show where and how deep utility lines run.
  • Topographic Map - Topographic maps are used to display actual, measurable elevations. On a classic topographical map, you can also find a regular map's components (north arrow, legend, and map scale). Line segments show mountain ranges and valley depths on a topographic map. A topographic map's contour lines and color shading are only two ways to show elevations. Many boundary lines, including international, provincial, and administrative, and topographic features, including elevation, forest cover, marsh, pipelines, power transmission lines, buildings, and more, may all be seen on a topographic map.
  • Political Map - Reference maps, especially "political maps," are very popular. You can see them hanging on the walls of classrooms everywhere. They illustrate the physical separation of political entities like nations, states, and counties. Maps of the Earth often include man-made elements like highways and urban areas and natural ones like bodies of water. Political maps are a valuable tool for learning about the globe outside one's own country. Many schools begin their introduction to maps with political maps. In addition to their primary name, "reference maps" is another name for them due to their frequent usage. While physical copies of political maps are standard, they can be made digitally and posted online. Millions of individuals a day use search engines to locate political maps.
  • Hypsometric Map - Hypsometry is the process of determining how high or low an area is in relation to the sea level. Similarly, bathymetry measures underwater depth. One way experts determine altitude is by boiling water with a hypsometer because the temperature at which water boils varies with changes in air pressure. Colors on a hypsometric map indicate different levels of height. One color is applied to the space between two adjacent contour lines.
  • Bathymetric Map - Topographic maps depicting the underwater terrain of a body of water are known as bathymetric maps or charts. The meaning of these maps is quite close to those of topographic maps. One of the critical distinctions between bathymetric and topographic maps is that the former depicts depth below sea level while the latter depicts elevation above sea level. Underwater topography may be seen in detail on bathymetric maps. Contour lines display both the topographical heights and the bathymetric depths. A contour line is an imagined line on the ground or ocean floor with the same height or depth all the way down the length of the line on a map.

Advance Mapping Terms

  • Aerotriangulation - The process of aerotriangulation involves using aerial images to pinpoint locations on the ground. To create maps, aerial triangulation (AT) overlaps many aerial photographs. Aerial triangulation refers to assembling a map from a collection of aerial photos by establishing each photo's relative positions and orientations.
  • Azimuth - Azimuths start at zero degrees for true north and grow in value to the east. In this context, an azimuth of 180 degrees indicates straight south as an example.
  • Declination - In most places, north is the direction a compass needle points. A compass needle will seldom point zero degrees north due to the erratic nature of Earth's magnetic field. When oriented properly, a compass points in a direction known as magnetic north, which coincides with the magnetic field's horizontal component. On the other hand, true north is the direction one must travel to reach the north geographic pole from any given point. Magnetic declination is the deviation of magnetic north from true north. 

Graticule - The graticule is the system of linesrepresenting parallels of latitude and meridians of longitude.

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