Brave New Map

Charles Fergus
September 01, 2003
hand drawn topographic map with river
Charles Fergus

Detail of a standard topo, annotated by the author.

Before beginning his lecture for the Geography Department's coffee hour series (ho-hum coffee but scrumptious brownies), John Kelmelis, a Penn State graduate and the chief scientist for geography at the U.S. Geological Survey, projected a slide. It was a topographic map—one of those colorful rectangular charts showing hills, mountains, swamps, lakes, towns, political boundaries, with detail down to individual houses: the sort of map I have used and been fascinated by ever since I saw my first topo, as they are generally known, back when I was a Boy Scout.

I congratulated myself on immediately identifying the place on the screen. Clearly it was the Harrisburg area, with the sinuous blue bend of the Susquehanna, the Dentynepink wash of urban development, black stitching of roads and rail lines, and the lush green of forested ridges, their crunched contour lines signifying steepness. To the left of the informative, transporting, and, in my view, unimprovable 1:24,000-scale topo (an inch on the map equals 24,000 inches, or 2,000 feet, on the ground), a logo: USGS, and the somewhat ominous message, even down to the all-lower-cased letters, science for a changing world.

Kelmelis entitled his lecture "The National Map: Topographic Mapping in the 21st Century." He explained that 55,000 topographic maps blanket the conterminous United States. It took the USGS three million person-hours to work up those maps, which, in our accelerating, information-drenched world, no longer remain sufficient or up-to-date.

According to Kelmelis, the USGS is digitizing the information in each of those 55,000 topos and integrating it, along with info from a host of other sources, into "updateable data sets." In the not-too-distant future, a prospective map user will be able to request a custom-made map with a choice of various types of data overlaid on the latitude-longitude grid.

Following are some of the features that next-generation-topo users will be able to access: vegetative cover type, boundaries, structures, transportation networks (GIScapable mappers will be driving down the centerlines of highways to precisely locate them on the landscape), hydrographical data, elevation, status and trends of land use . . . . Not that you'd want all of those data sets crammed onto one map, which would surely render it an unreadable blot of ink.

I find it hard to contemplate such change, since I have for so long and so steadfastly relied on the standard topos, which I have even learned to fold in a certain proscribed way, ending up with a small rectangle, the map's name displayed front and back ("BEAR KNOB, PA"). My topos have acquired a patina of use: mud flecks, rain puckers, edges frayed from being slipped into and out of pockets and packs. Plus cryptic penciled-in notes: "morels," "woodies," "old fdn," "WC???," "grape tangle."

I confess to having largely ignored many recent changes in map technology, despite the flexibility and economy they offer. For instance, you can now buy a CD that includes every topographic map in a given state for only $19.95. (The paper topos are $5 each, and rumor has it that the government will stop printing them before too long.) From the CD you can produce, on your own computer printer, a map covering whatever coordinates you desire, thereby solving the problem of having to buy four separate topos because some intriguing feature—a boggy swale, say, that just might nourish a blueberry patch—lies near the corner of one map and bleeds over onto three others.

The computer-generated maps aren't as sharp as the real topos, or as lasting. I remember hiking up a foggy mountain in the Poconos while doing research for my book Natural Pennsylvania: A Guide to the State Forest Natural Areas. In that remote setting, I needed to keep consulting the map—a forester had dashed it off for me on his computer—so I wouldn't get lost. (Isn't that what maps are for?) It was raining ax handles and pitchforks, and it soon became apparent that the ink with which the map had been rendered was not waterproof. Every time I wanted to check where I was, I had to bend over, shake the water off my hat brim, spread my arms, and make a tent out my raingear to protect the map—even so, the sheet was a barely legible pulp by the time I made it off the mountain.

According to Kelmelis, the National Map will be an atlas at a very high resolution. It will, he said, evolve to become "a seamless, continually maintained, nationally consistent, vertically and horizontally integrated set of basic spatial data." Scientists and researchers will be able to request an array of information, all of it frequently updated (I think I heard the phrase "on a monthly basis"). Citizen users will contact a "kiosk"—a company that sells outdoor supplies—to buy their own customized maps.

They had better be waterproof. And I wonder: Will I be able to specify a map of excellent berry-picking spots? Ideal campsites? Places to find morel mushrooms? Solitude?

Can everybody else do the same?

Last Updated September 01, 2003