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Topographic map facts for kids

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Topographic map example
A topographic map

A topographic map is a kind of map which uses contour lines or other ways to show elevation and topography. Topo maps are usually very detailed, with a large scale, though some are not. These maps are prepared based on detailed surveying of the areas concerned.

Topographical maps may be used for many purposes. They show relief features, rivers, land use, vegetation, settlements, roads, railway lines and administrative units and their boundaries. These maps are revised periodically to update them. Town guide maps are based on them.


Topographic maps are based on topographical surveys. Performed at large scales, these surveys are called topographical in the old sense of topography, showing a variety of elevations and landforms. This is in contrast to older cadastral surveys, which primarily show property and governmental boundaries. The first multi-sheet topographic map series of an entire country, the Carte géométrique de la France, was completed in 1789. The Great Trigonometric Survey of India, started by the East India Company in 1802, then taken over by the British Raj after 1857 was notable as a successful effort on a larger scale and for accurately determining heights of Himalayan peaks from viewpoints over one hundred miles distant.

Soviet topographic map codes
Global indexing system first developed for International Map of the World

Topographic surveys were prepared by the military to assist in planning for battle and for defensive emplacements (thus the name and history of the United Kingdom's Ordnance Survey). As such, elevation information was of vital importance.

As they evolved, topographic map series became a national resource in modern nations in planning infrastructure and resource exploitation. In the United States, the national map-making function which had been shared by both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Interior migrated to the newly created United States Geological Survey in 1879, where it has remained since.

1913 saw the beginning of the International Map of the World initiative, which set out to map all of Earth's significant land areas at a scale of 1:1 million, on about one thousand sheets, each covering four degrees latitude by six or more degrees longitude. Excluding borders, each sheet was 44 cm high and (depending on latitude) up to 66 cm wide. Although the project eventually foundered, it left an indexing system that remains in use.

By the 1980s, centralized printing of standardized topographic maps began to be superseded by databases of coordinates that could be used on computers by moderately skilled end users to view or print maps with arbitrary contents, coverage and scale. For example, the federal government of the United States' TIGER initiative compiled interlinked databases of federal, state and local political borders and census enumeration areas, and of roadways, railroads, and water features with support for locating street addresses within street segments. TIGER was developed in the 1980s and used in the 1990 and subsequent decennial censuses. Digital elevation models (DEM) were also compiled, initially from topographic maps and stereographic interpretation of aerial photographs and then from satellite photography and radar data. Since all these were government projects funded with taxes and not classified for national security reasons, the datasets were in the public domain and freely usable without fees or licensing.

TIGER and DEM datasets greatly facilitated geographic information systems and made the Global Positioning System much more useful by providing context around locations given by the technology as coordinates. Initial applications were mostly professionalized forms such as innovative surveying instruments and agency-level GIS systems tended by experts. By the mid-1990s, increasingly user-friendly resources such as online mapping in two and three dimensions, integration of GPS with mobile phones and automotive navigation systems appeared. As of 2011, the future of standardized, centrally printed topographical maps is left somewhat in doubt.

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