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Using Maps & Images to Identify Geographical Features

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There's a whole world that can be seen in maps and images, but only if you know how to read them. In this lesson, we'll examine this problem and see how people depict the natural world in different ways.

Identifying Geographical Features

The world is full of amazing geographical features from rivers to mountains to deserts to swamps. There's a lot to see, and luckily we can see it all without leaving home as long as you have access to maps or other images of the world.

However, there's a problem. How do you know what you're actually looking at? The geographical features of the world can be found in maps and images, but you can only find them if you know where to look.

Using Maps

Maps are images that depict the world in a compact, easily accessible format. Most maps show the world as if you were far above it, looking down. That's not a view we're used to, so how do you know what's actually on a map?

A physical map with political borders added
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First, you need to distinguish the kind of map you're using. If our goal is to find geographical features, then we probably want to use a physical map, which depicts the physical, natural world. That's different from a political map, for example, which is more focused on borders, countries, and other political units that don't really exist in nature.

On a physical map, there are some common ways that geographical features are depicted. Water is almost always colored blue, for obvious reasons. This helps you quickly locate rivers, lakes, and oceans on the map. Areas with lots of vegetation are often depicted in green, while rugged mountains are often depicted in brown.

However, it's important to remember that there is no law mandating this system. Different maps might alter it in order to fit their needs. So, how do you know what various colors or symbols mean on your map? Almost every map will contain a legend or key, which describes each symbol and tells you exactly what they stand for. Near the legend will also be a scale, which tells you how distance is represented on this map. For example, one inch on the map might represent one mile in the real world, or it could represent 100 miles. It's important to note the scale of the map so that you understand the actual distance between things as well as the size of geographic features. It would be a pretty big mistake to think you only had to cross a small creek and find out it's actually the size of the Mississippi River.

Other Maps

Of course, there are other ways to create maps, some of which can be very useful in identifying geographical features. One of the best is the topographic map, which are covered in lines called contours, which represent a set amount of elevation change. For example, each line could represent a change of 50 feet in elevation. If the lines are close together, you know that a lot of elevation change happens in a small amount of space. This could be a steep cliff or mountainside. If the lines are spaced apart, this might be a wide valley or plain. Topographic maps are very useful for identifying the physical shapes and dimensions of geographical features.

On this topographic map, can you tell which area is the steepest?
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It's worth noting that most physical and topographic maps are flat and rectangular. Why is this an issue? Because the world itself isn't flat or rectangular. It's a sphere. Compressing real space onto a flat map means ignoring things like the curvature of the Earth, so most maps aren't 100% accurate, just as accurate as they can be. For that reason, we also make globes, spherical models of the Earth that depict space in a more realistic way. Globes are great for getting the most accurate view of geographic features, but there are still challenges. In order to be useful, globes have to be relatively small, so you can only use them to find fairly large features like oceans and mountain ranges.

Using Images to Identify Geographical Features

Maps are one way to examine geographical features of the world, but not the only way. We can also rely on images like paintings or photographs. To do this, you first have to establish the viewpoint. Remember, most maps depict the world from above, but other images will not. Are you seeing this from the side, from above, or somewhere in between?

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