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Using Topographic Maps to Generate Topographic Profiles

Using Topographic Maps to Generate Topographic Profiles



Topographic profiles give a side-on view of the terrain of an area of interest.

Topographic maps are a standard map view that provides aerial perspective and three-dimensional representation of the Earth's surface. These can be used to generate side-on views of the land, also known as topographic profiles.

When planning roads, railroads, pipelines, or hiking trails, topographic profiles can be a valuable tool to inform the professional or recreational user of the terrain in a target area.

This video will illustrate the process of making topographic profiles from topographic maps.

Among the defining features of topographic maps are the contour lines, which notate elevation. These lines convey three-dimensional information, and can inform the map user of various landform patterns, such as ridges, valleys, hills, or plateaus.

In topographic mapping, maps produced can vary in detail and scale, often dependent on the subject terrain. The elevation interval between the contour lines is one aspect that may vary. For example, in regions with significant topographic variation, maps may use contour lines of 40 to 100 feet. In generally flat-lying areas with little variation, maps may use more broadly separated 10 to 20 foot contours.

The precise composition and ability to extract dependable elevation data for any point on the topographic map allows for construction of topographic profiles. These "side-on" cross-sectional views are constructed using a line established between points, and recording contours crossing this line.

The subsequent data is plotted as a graph of elevation, with elevation plotted on the Y-axis, and the contour crossings along the X-axis. When these points are joined, this allows the user to see how the surface rises and falls along this hypothetical line.

Depending on the intended use of the map, vertical exaggeration can be applied to the Y-axis. This can be beneficial in scenarios where the topographic profile is being utilized to show the ruggedness of the terrain. In scenarios where the primary use of the topographic profile is to project geologic features or cross-sections, vertical exaggeration is best avoided.

Topographic profiles can be extremely useful, and provide a starting point for making geologic cross-sections that project rock structures or layers into the subsurface. In a very general sense, we find that ridges are composed of resistant rocks and valleys are composed of less-resistant, easily eroded rocks.

Now that we are familiar with topographic maps and making topographic profiles, let's take a look at how this is carried out.

The first step in making a topographic profile is to obtain a topographic map. These can be generated by the scientist, or gathered from a geological survey agency. Once an appropriate map has been selected, topographic profiling can be started.

Establish a line between two points that intersects the region of interest on the map. These should be labeled as A-A'. Take a strip of paper, and lay it along the cross section line between the two points. On the strip of paper, place a tick mark where each of the contour lines intersects the line of the paper cross-section. Add notations indicating the elevations of those contour lines. Where there is little topographic variation, mark all contours. If there is substantial topographic variation along the chosen line, begin by only marking the intersection of the major, or "index" contours. These are seen in bold on the map.

On graph paper, draw the region of interest. Choose a scale for the y-axis with or without exaggeration. Set the tick marks along the x-axis and transfer each elevation mark onto the graph with a dot. This generates a graph of elevation versus distance along the A-A' line. Connect these dots to make a continuous line.

The map defines the scale of the x-axis, but the Y-axis can be chosen to show a realistic view, or one that accentuates the local topography to demonstrate rugged terrain.

The ability to visualize local terrain is important in a variety of applications.

Evaluating the ruggedness or steepness of a terrain can be useful in assessing the difficulty of traversing a particular area. This can be applicable in different ways for different modes of transport such as hiking, biking, or driving. Field work for geological or biological surveys may require making a transect through an area for the purpose of taking measurements or collecting samples. Topographic profiles can inform field scientists of the feasibility and difficulty of sampling in different regions and facilitate planning of an appropriate transect.

Topographic profiles are the land-surface basis for constructing geologic cross-sections. These sections are a graphical projection of surface rock or soil layers into the subsurface, and provide a side view of the Earth's interior crucial to interpreting all kinds of geologic features. These can be used for many applications, including locating likely sources of ground water reservoirs, possible oil and gas pockets, or regions of folding or faulting.

Most topography on Earth is a consequence of the interplay between erosion and uplift, which is caused by volcanism, tectonism, tidal forcing, and impacts. Detailed analyses of topographic variations are a critical part of assessing terrain evolution.

You've just watched JoVE's introduction to topographic maps and profiles. You should now understand the importance of topographic maps, how to make topographic profiles, and how these profiles can be useful to geologists and communities as a whole.

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