Chris Brackley is Canadian Geographic’s resident cartographer. This article originally appeared on his website As The Crow Flies Cartography. It has been republished here with his permission. The video above is from a cartography-focused mini series with Brackley. Watch the rest here.
“Hasn't everything been mapped already” is a question people often bite their tongues not to ask me when I tell them I'm a cartographer. Indeed, this notion was played for laughs in the pilot of the TV show Arrested Development where Buster the slow-witted youngest brother of the Bluth family had gone back to school to become a cartographer (as if there were any need for a cartographer in the 21st century).
While there is precious little “uncharted territory” left on the planet in 2015, there remains an infinite number of things yet to map. To understand how this is possible, you have to understand the difference between a base-map, and a story-telling map.
Road maps, topographic maps and standard school wall maps are all base-maps. They are carefully designed to present familiar map features (rivers, lakes, roads, towns) in a distinctly non-hierarchical way — each element having essentially the same visual importance. Although base-maps continually need updating as humanity changes the face of our planet, for all intents and purposes we have base-mapped most of the world.
But base-maps are just the tip of the cartographic iceberg. The real magic of cartography happens when you layer other information within and around the roads and rivers. When you make conscious visual choices to emphasize one element over another. Consider the three maps below, showing the same piece of land on the Saskatchewan/Manitoba border.
This first map is a fine example of a base map from the Atlas of Canada, and gives you the basics of roads, rivers and lakes and the names of each of these elements. Solid base information, but not much of a story.
This second map is one of Natural Resources Canada's National Topographic Maps (clearly meant to be printed much larger so you can read the text) but again you see basic elements of road, river and lake and a real effort to show everything with a relatively equal visual weight. This map does layer in the forested area in green, and topographic contour lines, but like all good base maps it is generic - making this area look much like any other place in Canada.
Now consider this third map which I made to accompany a story in Canadian Geographic about a broad range of issues facing the Cumberland Delta, and its predominantly First Nations population. The story described how lush and biodiverse the Delta was, and also how affected the First Nations communities had been by the E.B. Campbell Dam, given their strong connection to the water as a source of sustenance and livelihood.
To support this story, the map mirrors it's focus. The delta (or stage on which this story takes place) is delineated in light blue. The water and the First Nations Reserves, as the focal point of the story, are visually dominant rendered in deep dark colours. The background has a lush, and life-filled green colouration, both for the forest (dark green) and wetland areas (lighter green) visually supporting the idea that this is a rich and diverse landscape. As a rich cartographic piece, it even includes contextual and curious information like the fact that there is agricultural land (yellow) this far north in the middle of a wetland.
Looking at this map, even without reading the article, you can begin to imagine what it might be like to be there — and as such, this is an immersive “take you there” style of cartography — probably my favourite. Of course there are lots of other cartographic methods that help to tell different kinds stories, which all help to further my argument that there is still a need for cartographers in 2015.