Relief Map: Definition, History & Use

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  • 0:04 What Is a Relief Map?
  • 1:27 History of Relief Maps
  • 2:22 Relief Maps Today
  • 3:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

Relief maps are important geographic and everyday tools that allow us to see geography in three dimensions. In this lesson, learn what a relief map is, how they are used, and their historical and contemporary importance.

What Is a Relief Map?

Relief maps depict contours of landmarks and terrain, based on shape and height. They are made by cartographers, who collect geographic and demographic data and then translate that information into various map forms.

Relief maps are more advanced versions of topographic maps. Topographic maps use contour lines to connect areas of the same elevation to create two-dimensional models. What makes relief maps different than other maps is the emphasis on the three-dimensional elevation of topography, which is oftentimes exaggerated for visual effect. Shading is also used between contours for better visualization of terrain, known as shaded relief. Hypsometric tints, or color codes for elevation, employed for better visualization of relief map terrain, are also used.

Terrain can be manipulated by scale, or the ratio of the sizes on a map to the sizes of the actual source area. In the past, relief maps were made as miniature models, while today, sophisticated computer mapping programs, such as geographic information systems, are used to virtually represent terrain in three dimensions. Three-dimensional printing is also becoming a popular way to translate computer-made relief maps into physical models.

History of Relief Maps

The earliest-known relief maps are from China, where three-dimensional models made from materials like wood and rice are described in historical accounts dating back nearly 2000 years. Scholars believe that the relief map traveled from China, through the Middle East, and eventually into Europe. The cartographer Paul Dox is credited with creating the first European relief map in 1510, which mapped the Kufstein, a mountainous region of northwestern Austria. Relief maps became key tools used in the age of exploration, as Europeans began to colonize new areas around the world. They also have become modern attractions. The Great Polish Map of Scotland is a scale model of Scotland built between 1974 and 1979 that's over 21,000 square feet in size, making it the largest relief map on record.

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