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Pages and Files
Front of Digital Textbook
Table of Contents
1. What is Earth Science?
1.1 The Nature of Science
1.2 Earth Science and Its Branches
2. Studying Earth's Surface
2.1 Earth’s Surface
2.2 Where in the World Are You?
2.3 Modeling Earth’s Surface
2.4 Topographic Maps
2.5 Using Satellites and Computers
3 Earth’s Minerals
3.1 Matter Matters
3.2 Minerals and Mineral Groups
3.3 Mineral Identification
3.4 Mineral Formation
3.5 Mining and Mineral Use
4.1 Types of Rocks
4.2 Igneous Rocks
4.3 Sedimentary Rocks
4.4 Metamorphic Rocks
5 Earth’s Energy
5.1 Energy Resources
5.2 Non-renewable Energy Resources
5.3 Renewable Energy Resources
6. Plate Tectonics
6.1 Inside Earth
6.2 Continental Drift
6.3 Seafloor Spreading
6.4 Theory of Plate Tectonics
7.1 Stress in the Earth’s Crust
7.2 Nature of Earthquakes
7.3 Measuring and Predicting Earthquakes
7.4 Staying Safe in Earthquakes
8.1 Where Volcanoes Occur
8.2 Volcanic Eruptions
8.3 Types of Volcanoes
8.4 Volcanic Landforms and Geothermal Activity
9. Weathering and Formation of Soil
10. Erosion and Deposition
10.1 Water Erosion and Deposition
10.2 Wave Erosion and Deposition
10.3 Wind Erosion and Deposition
10.4 Glacial Erosion and Deposition
10.5 Erosion and Deposition by Gravity
11. Evidence About Earth’s Past
11.2 Relative Ages of Rocks
11.3 Absolute Ages of Rocks
12 Earth’s History
12.1 Early Earth
12.2 The Precambrian
12.3 Phanerozoic Earth History
12.4 History of Earth’s Complex Life Forms
13. Earth’s Fresh Water
13.1 Water on Earth
13.2 Surface Water
13.3 Ground Water
14. Earth’s Oceans
14.1 Introduction to the Oceans
14.2 Ocean Movements
14.3 The Seafloor
14.4 Ocean Life
15. Earth’s Atmosphere
15.1 The Atmosphere
15.2 Atmospheric Layers
15.3 Energy in the Atmosphere
15.4 Air Movement
16.1 Weather and Atmospheric Water
16.2 Changing Weather
16.4 Weather Forecasting
17.1 Climate and Its Causes
17.2 World Climates
17.3 Climate Change
18. Ecosystems and Human Populations
18.2 Lesson Objectives
18.3 The Carbon Cycle and the Nitrogen Cycle
18.4 Human Populations
19. Human Actions and the Land
19.1 Loss of Soils
19.2 Pollution of the Land
20. Human Actions and Earth’s Resources
20.1 Use and Conservation of Resources
20.2 Energy Conservation
21. Human Actions and Earth’s Waters
21.1 Humans and the Water Supply
21.2 Problems with Water Distribution
21.3 Water Pollution
21.4 Protecting the Water Supply
22. Human Actions and the Atmosphere
22.1 Air Pollution
22.2 Effects of Air Pollution
22.3 Reducing Air Pollution
23. Observing and Exploring Space
23.2 Early Space Exploration
23.3 Recent Space Exploration
24. Earth, Moon, and Sun
24.1 Planet Earth
24.2 Earth’s Moon
24.3 The Sun
24.4 The Sun and the Earth-Moon System
25. The Solar System
25.1 Introduction to the Solar System
25.2 Inner Planets
25.3 Outer Planets
25.4 Other Objects in the Solar System
26. Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe
26.3 The Universe
27. Earth Science Glossary
28. Maine Learning Results
29. Download ES in PDF Format
30. Download Individual Chapters
2.4 Topographic Maps
Explain how to read and interpret a topographic map.
Explain how Earth scientists use topographic maps.
Explain how bathymetric maps are used to determine underwater features.
Describe what a geologic map shows.
Maps are extremely useful to Earth scientists to represent geographic features found above and below sea level and to show the geology of a region. Rock units and geologic structures are shown on geologic maps.
What is a Topographic Map?
Mapping is a crucial part of Earth science.
represent the locations of geographical features, such as hills and valleys. Topographic maps use contour lines to show different elevations on a map. A
is a type of isoline; in this case, a line of equal elevation. If you walk along a contour line you will not go up or downhill. Mathematically, a contour line is a curve in two dimensions on which the value of a function f(x,y) is a constant.
Contour Lines and Intervals
Contour lines connect all the points on a map that have the same elevation and therefore, reveal the location of hills, mountains, and valleys. While a road map shows where a road goes, a topographic map shows why; e.g. the road bends to go around a hill or stops at the top of a mountain. On a contour map (
Each contour line represents a specific elevation and connects all the points that are at the same elevation. Every fifth contour line is bolded and labeled with numerical elevations.
The contour lines run next to each other and NEVER cross. After all, a single point can only have one elevation.
Two contour lines next to one another are separated by a constant difference in elevation (e.g. 20 ft or 100 ft.). This difference between contour lines is called the
. The map legend gives the contour interval.
A topographic map of Stowe, Vermont.
A topographic map of Stowe, Vermont.
How would you calculate the contour interval on the map of Stowe?
Calculate the difference in elevation between two bold lines.
Divide that difference by the number of contour lines between them.
On the Stowe map, the difference between two bold lines is 100 feet and there are five lines between them so the contour interval is 20 feet (100 ft/5 lines = 20 ft/line).
The Value of a Topographic Map
Swamp Canyon in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah (shown in the
) is very rugged, with steep canyon walls and a valley below.
View of Swamp Canyon in Bryce Canyon National Park.
The visitor’s map of the area in the
shows important locations. What's missing from this map? This map does not represent the landscape.
Road map of Bryce Canyon.
Swamp Canyon Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park. The green line indicates the main road, black dotted lines are trails and there are markers for campsites, a picnic area, and a shuttle bus stop.
With contour lines to indicate elevation, the topographic map in the
shows the terrain.
Topographic map of Swamp Canyon Trail portion of Bryce Canyon National Park.
Interpreting Contour Maps
How does the map of Bryce Canyon reveal the terrain of the region? Several principles are important for reading a topographic map:
1. Contour lines show the 3-dimensional shape of the land (
). What does the spacing of contour lines indicate?
Closely-spaced contour lines indicate a steep slope, because the elevation changes quickly in a small area.
Contour lines that seem to touch indicate a very steep rise, like a cliff or canyon wall.
Broadly spaced contour lines indicate a shallow slope.
Marked up topographic map of Stowe, VT.
A portion of a USGS topographic map of Stowe, Vermont. Just to the right of the city of Stowe is a steep hill with a sharp rise of about 200 ft that becomes less steep toward the right.
2. Concentric circles indicate a hill. When contour lines form closed loops all together in the same area, this is a hill. The smallest loops are the higher elevations and the larger loops are downhill. On the Stowe map, which hill has an elevation of 1122 feet? If you found Cady Hill, on the left, you are right.
3. Hatched concentric circles indicate a depression, as seen in the
. The hatch marks are short, perpendicular lines inside the circle. The innermost hatched circle would represent the deepest part of the depression, while the outer hatched circles represent higher elevations.
On a contour map, a circle with inward hatches indicates a depression.
4. V-shaped expanses of contour lines indicate stream valleys. Where a stream crosses the land, the Vs in the contour lines point uphill. The channel of the stream passes through the point of the V and the open end of the V represents the downstream portion. If the stream contains water, the line will be blue; otherwise, the V patterns indicate the direction water will flow. In the map of Stowe, where does a stream run downhill into a lake?
Start at the “T” in Stowe. A blue stream goes downhill (northwest) into a lake. Coming out of the T on the other side, you can follow the blue stream uphill (southeast). Where the water flow is light or nonexistent, there is no longer a blue line, but the contour lines point uphill indicating that the stream channel is still there (see the map of Stowe above).
5. Scales on topographic maps indicate horizontal distance. The horizontal scale can be used to calculate the slope of the land (vertical height/horizontal distance). Common scales used in United States Geological Service (USGS) maps include the following:
1:24,000 scale – 1 inch = 2000 ft
1:100,000 scale – 1 inch = 1.6 miles
1:250,000 scale – 1 inch = 4 miles
An animation showing contour lines and the slopes they represent:
Google Earth Topographic Map
shows a 3D image with contour lines superimposed on it to show the relationship between the two
(1h - I&E Stand.)
is like a topographic map with the contour lines representing depth below sea level, rather than height above. Numbers are low near sea level and become higher with depth. Bathymetric maps help oceanographers visualize the landforms at the bottoms of lakes, bays, and the ocean as if the water were removed.
Bathymetric map of Loihi volcano growing on Kilaueau volacno in Hawaii.
Loihi volcano growing on the flank of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. Black lines in the inset show the land surface above sea level and blue lines show the topography below sea level.
shows the geological features of a region (
) and (
). Rock units are shown in a color identified in a key. On the map of Yosemite, volcanic rocks are brown, the Tuolumne Intrusive Suite is peach, and the metamorphosed sedimentary rocks are green. Structural features, for example folds and faults, are also shown on a geologic map. The area around Mt. Dana on the east central side of the map has fault lines.
Geologic map of Yosemite National Park, California.
Geologic map of Yosemite National Park. Credit: US Geological Survey, public domain.
Geologic map of the world, with colors representing geological provinces.
On a large scale geologic map, colors represent geological provinces.
This video shows a 3-dimensional interpretation of a geologic map from the Green River in Utah
(1h - I&E Stand.)
This hour-long video is a tutorial on how to interpret a geologic map and construct a geological cross-section
(1h - I&E Stand.)
Topographic maps are 2-dimensional representations of the 3-dimensional surface features of an area.
Topographic maps have contour lines that connect points of identical elevation above sea level.
Contour lines run next to each other. Adjacent contour lines are separated by a constant difference in elevation, usually noted on the map.
Topographic maps have a horizontal scale to indicate horizontal distances.
People use topographic maps to locate surface features in a given area, to find their way through a particular area, and to determine the direction of water flow in a given area.
Oceanographers use bathymetric maps to depict the features beneath a body of water.
Geologic maps display rock units and geologic features of a region of any size. A small scale map displays individual rock units; a large scale map shows geologic provinces.
On a topographic map, contour lines create a group of concentric, closed loops. Which of the following features could this indicate?
a stream channel
Describe the pattern on a topographic map that would indicate a stream valley. How do you determine the direction of water flow?
On a topographic map, five contour lines are very close together in one area. The contour interval is 100 ft. What feature does that indicate? How high is this feature?
On a topographic map, describe how you can tell a steep slope from a shallow slope?
On a topographic map, a river is shown crossing from Point A in the northwest to Point B in the southeast. Point A is on a contour line of 800 ft and Point B is on a contour line of 900 ft. In which direction does the river flow?
On a topographic map, six contour lines span a horizontal map distance of 0.5 inches. The horizontal scale is 1 inch equals 2,000 ft. How far apart are the first and sixth lines?
On a geologic map of the Grand Canyon, a rock unit called the Kaibab Limestone takes up the entire surface of the region. Down some steep topographic lines is a very thin rock unit called the Toroweap Formation and down more topographic lines into the canyon from that is another thin unit, the Coconino Sandstone. Describe how these three rock units sit relative to each other. Which is oldest and which is youngest?
Further Reading / Supplemental Links
A key of topographic map symbols by the USGS is found here:
How to construct a topographic profile:
How to determine geologic features from topographic maps:
More about reading topographic maps:
topographic map A map that shows elevations above sea level to indicate geographic features. geologic map A map showing the geologic features, such as rock units and structural features, of a region. contour line A line on a topographic map to show elevation. contour interval The constant difference in elevation between two contour lines on a topographic map. bathymetric map A topographic map that shows depth below sea level to indicate geographic features.
Points to Consider
How might a civil engineer use a topographic map to build a road, bridge, or tunnel through the area such as that shown in Figure 2.22. What topography would be best for a bridge? Which areas might need a bridge? Where might a tunnel be helpful?
If you wanted to participate in orienteering, would it be better to have a topographic map or a road map? How would a topographic map help you?
If you were the captain of a ship, what type of map would you want and why?
Libre Map Project - Maine Map and GIS Data
Atlas of Maine
Maine Geological Survey
Maine Geological Survey MAP READING
Topographic Maps I
Topographic Maps II
Topographic Maps III: Back Azimuths and Triangulation
The Scoop on Slope (y=mx + b)
USGS - Topographic Mapping
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