Charting the Back Country

June 1, 2014 | By More

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Civilization owes a great debt of gratitude to cartographers. From famous men like William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition and Dr. Henry Livingston who mapped the African continent to lesser known mapmaker/surveyors like Prospect Robbins and Joseph Brown who mapped the Louisiana Purchase. Maps and their makers expand our understanding of the world.

Map making takes a combination of specialized skills so cartographers are multi-taskers of the highest order. According to cartographer Kristian Underwood, owner of Underwood Geographics, “Cartography is one of a few disciplines where one must blend the arts and sciences.” Underwood recently published a new map of the Mulberry River, and is mapping the 200+ miles Ozark Highlands Trail among other projects. Underwood has a BS in Social Science and Anthropology from Florida State University (1998) and a Masters of Art Degree in Geography from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville (2009).

“To be a cartographer, one has to be versed in scientific theory, understand the concepts of mapping — projections, coordinate systems — along with their pros and cons,” said Underwood. “Obviously you have to understand geography; both physical and cultural. You have to be able to visualize data in an aesthetically pleasing manor. Psychology also plays an important role; you have to understand how human cognition works in order to convey your message efficaciously. In my field specialty, outdoor recreational cartography, I typically find myself in the wilderness and it is very helpful to understand the environment, the ecology, geomorphology (Earth Science), geology, weather, etc.

Everything is geographic, and the more one comprehends, the better it will reflect in the map. A well-crafted map with data that is not accurate cannot be used for navigation, and a scientifically accurate map without visualization does not communicate to the reader/user. Therefore, it needs to have scientifically accurate data with a well-designed & established visual hierarchy,” said Underwood.

Advances in electronic positioning technology have made a cartographer’s job easier today than in past centuries when surveyor/cartographers relied on their drawing skills and simple measurements made by barometers and a compass, rod and chains, and barometers.

“During the Second World War and possibly sooner the United States  Geological Survey (USGS) began to use airplanes to photograph the land in plan view, a view from above looking straight down at a 90 degree angle;  then  they digitized the roads, streams, coastlines, etc. to make much more accurate large-scale maps.

This method is still in use today, only now most things are done with satellites utilizing photographs, radar and LiDAR, what we use in the 21 century for finding range/distance.  In the 20th century we first used Sonar (Sound) to find range. This was quickly replaced by radar (Radio Waves) and now radar has been replaced with LiDAR (Laser),” said Underwood.

Today, a vast majority of 21st century cartographers utilize Geographic Information Systems or Science (GIS) to help create maps, he said. “GIS has revolutionized the mapping industry. It was first developed in the 60s, but as with all computer technologies it has grown tremendously over the decades. It allows one to spatially display geo-referenced data in a specific projection and coordinate system. However, it also allows one to attach attributes to each piece of datum,” said Underwood.

“Take for example a road; it will typically have an associated attribute table that will state the name/number, whether it is paved or gravel and how many lanes. Is there a median, is it private, county, state, federal, is it suitable for passenger vehicles or 4WD vehicles? Once you have a data set of all the roads, one can query the attribute table for all the federal highways and make a unique layer, then one can make a layer of the roads that are just state, county, forest service, etc. There are hundreds and thousands of data sets that are readily available in the public domain. You just have to find them” said Underwood.

“GIS is a powerful program software, but it lacks in the graphic design functionality. Once I have all the filtered data that is pertinent to the map on their own unique layers and in the correct projection/scale, I export all the data to a graphic design programs. For me, the graphic design usually is the longest process of making a map. I need to establish a visual hierarchy, and to do so I will create foreground and background elements with the use of colors, line-weights, fonts, size, contrast, opacities and the ever tedious process of labeling features.

It’s pretty obvious cartographers must be smart, but they also need physical endurance. Underwood spends a lot of time outdoors, carting around equipment and stopping every few minutes to measure and take field notes as he hikes the trails or paddles the rivers. “I typically spend a work day in the field that usually allows for 5-10 miles of data collection if propulsion is by foot or hand (hiking/paddling). Obviously I can collect data a lot faster if I am in a car or ORV, but I don’t really collect that much data this way,” he said.

Occasionally, a cartographer faces danger, too. “I have been on rivers that have flashed (flash flooded) over the evening which forced me to scramble my gear and myself to higher ground. I have camped in storms that have blown trees over all around and I just sat there hoping the next one wouldn’t fall on me. There’s not too much you can do in those situations except place your gear and yourself in the safest place possible and wait it out.”

Underwood said his most challenging assignment to date was “easily the Mulberry River map. Take all the difficulties of collecting data in the field and then add in moving water in an unstable boat and it can be dangerous. Also, our streams typically flow in the winter/spring, so it is typically cold and hypothermia is a very real threat when you are surrounded by water in freezing temperatures.”

Despite the trials and tribulations of his work, Underwood said his “biggest challenge is to convey to people what I do as a cartographer and how much work, education, specialized equipment, and talent is involved. A lot of time and money goes into creating each map. There seems to be some misconception that there is some magic program out there where I hit a few buttons and the map is complete, but technology is only a small part of what goes into making a good map, said Underwood.

For more information on Underwood’s work, visit www.ugeographics.com Underwood Geographics, Creative Maps & Design, Post Office Box 1 . Winslow, AR 72959 . Contact. info@ugeographics.com . (479) 268-1888.

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