What is a Topographic Map? - Definition & Features

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  • 0:00 Topographic Maps
  • 0:40 Contour Lines
  • 1:25 Contour Interval
  • 2:34 Relief Map
  • 2:57 Digital Elevation Model
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Fennell
A topographic map shows how the ground is shaped and provides a way to calculate the height of the features on the map. This lesson explains what a topographic map is and how to determine the heights of features on the map.

Topographic Maps

A topographic map is a type of map that shows heights that you can measure. A traditional topographic map will have all the same elements as a non-topographical map, such as scale, legend, and north arrow.

topographical map

On a map, you are looking straight down, so it is difficult to see the change in elevation of the ground. As you can see in this image, a topographic map uses lines to determine the heights of features such as mountains and valleys. Topographic maps can show the heights of features a variety of ways, including contour lines, relief, and color.

Contour Lines

The defining feature of a two-dimensional topographical map is its contour lines. A contour line is a line joining points of equal elevation on a surface. An easy way to imagine a contour line is to imagine walking around the shore of a lake. As you walk, you will always remain at the same elevation, and eventually you will return to your starting point.

There are three rules for contour lines:

  1. Every point along a contour line is the exact same elevation
  2. Contour lines can never cross each other
  3. A contour line must close on itself

Some contour lines will have their elevation marked next to them, but not all. In order to calculate the height of any contour line, you need to know the contour interval.

Contour Interval

A topographical map will contain many contour lines, but the change in elevation between each line will remain the same; this is called a contour interval. By making the change in elevation between the lines equal, it is easy to calculate height by using multiplication.

For example, this image shows contour lines that we can use to calculate contour intervals:

contour lines

For this map, the contour interval is 5. This can be calculated by dividing the difference between the two known elevations by the number of contour lines in between. While the horizontal distance varies between the lines, it is important to remember that contour lines are there to show elevation. In addition to calculating the contour interval, it is also usually labeled on the map near the legend.

An easy way to think about topographic maps is the distance between the lines is horizontal distance, while the values of the lines are the elevation. If the distance between the lines is very far apart, that indicates a gradual increase in elevation. If the lines are close together, the change in elevation happens very quickly, indicating a steep terrain.

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