How to Read Topographic and Geologic Maps

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  • 1:17 Topographic Map Basics
  • 3:53 Contour Rules
  • 7:17 Geologic Maps
  • 8:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Brege

Paul has been teaching middle school science for the last 10 years, and has his bachelors degree in Elementary Education.

This lesson explains the main features of topographic maps, including contour lines, index contours and contour intervals. It will also cover two rules that all contours follow and discuss geologic maps and the information they contain.

What Are Topographic Maps?

Imagine the best banana split ever. Golden banana slices on the bottom, two or three nice big scoops of frosty ice cream, warm caramel & chocolate, maybe even some bright sprinkles…Oh and don't forget the best part, the whipped cream. If you start out with a wide base and keep spiraling upward, you get that mountain peak at the top where the cherry lives. And if you were to look down at that sundae from above, (paying special attention to the whipped cream) you would see lots of lines. These lines would circle all the way around the mountain you just created and would be very similar to something called a topographic map.

A topographic map is a type of map that shows elevation. Topographic maps are used by people like hikers and others who need to know what the elevation of an area is. So what do these lines mean? Why are there so many, and why are they so crooked? This lesson will be looking at just that: We will cover what a topographic map is, what those lines are and how they work. Specifically, we will delve into the rules that those lines follow and how to make sense of the numbers associated with them. Later on in the lesson, we'll learn how this information connects to a true geologic map and how to read all those colors.


Topographic Map Basics

We begin our focus on the basic part of a topographic map, all those lines. These are known as contour lines. Contour lines connect points of equal elevation. All that means is that where there's a line, everything on that line is the same height or altitude.

Think of it this way, if you had a tub of water with a big rock in it and you started filling the tub with water but paused every minute to draw a line where the water had risen to - those lines would be like contour lines. If you did this for the entire rock, then drained all the water out, the rock would have lines all over it. If you looked at this from above, just like the whipped cream from before, you would see all those lines connecting and forming circles. A topographic map shows those lines. On most maps like this, these lines are shown with a light brown color.

A topographic map
topographic map

If you were to look at a topographic map, you would realize that there's not just one line, but many. Each line is a different elevation, but some of these lines have numbers on them. These are called index contours. Index contours display the exact elevation of one specific line. Why not just put numbers on every line? Space. There just isn't enough room on the map to keep putting numbers everywhere, and it would get awfully cluttered if we did. We'll touch on this idea again later on.

To put this into perspective, imagine you are somewhere with a big staircase. Maybe you're at the Pyramids of Giza or one of those big concrete sports arenas or any other place where there's lots of steps. Imagine you are at the very bottom of those steps. If you start hiking up the stairs, the tenth step up would be painted light brown. Not just in one spot, the entire step, all the way across. It would represent 10 feet high. This would be one of your contour lines.



If you went up another 10 steps, there would be another step painted brown there as well. If you keep going, eventually you will probably lose count of how many steps you took. Don't believe me? Go run stairs somewhere and try to remember what floor you are on, try a tall hotel stairwell. After a while, you'll get tired and start to forget. Well lucky for you, after your 50 stairs, you see a painted step that has a big 5-0 printed on it. Do you remember what this line is called? If you said index contour line, you are correct! If not, that's OK. Why don't you have a seat, catch your breath and take a look around. This step with a big 50 painted on it means that you're now 50 feet above sea level. Each index contour might only be labeled in two or three other places - it keeps the clutter down.

Contour Rules

One different thing about topographic maps: They have rules. Specifically, the contour lines have rules - and every topographic map follows them:

1. Lines cannot cross.

2. Lines form circles around hills or depressions.

Let's unpack those rules a bit more. First, the contour lines cannot cross, but why? Think about what those lines do first. What are they there for? I know you remembered that they show elevation! If two lines crossed, it would actually mean that one location had two different elevations. While that would be pretty cool, being at two different elevations at the same time would cause some serious issues with physicists because basically you would need to be in two different places at one time, and that can't happen.

While we're focused on lines here, look at the space between any two lines. This is called the contour interval. Contour interval is the distance between any two side-by-side lines. For example, a contour interval of 10 means you would change elevation 10 feet up or down by crossing over those lines on the map. It depends which way you're traveling. Every space between every line on that map would be 10 feet of elevation change, no matter how close or spread out those lines are. This information will either be printed on the map somewhere or you can figure it out by looking at the index contours.

Now, lines can (and often do) get really close to each other. The closer those lines, the steeper the hill would be. A sheer cliff would have lines all piled up to show that drastic elevation change, and a gentle slope would have contour lines much more spread out. See how these lines are all bunched up here? This is a topographic map that would represent this type of cliff landform.


The other rule we need to look at states that contour lines close around hills and depressions. This is probably best explained by going back to our step idea. If you were to run all the way around the base of one of those pyramids, it would make a big square. If you were to then go up 10 feet to that first painted level of step and run around that that, it would make another square. This would be a little bit smaller, but the same exact shape.

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