The Importance of Scales in Mapping

Maps are a very important tool. They’re used by everyone at some point or another, including individuals, businesses, and governments. They provide an overview of the spatial relationship between different locations, making it easier to navigate and make informed decisions. To create an accurate map, we need to pay close attention to the scale. It is an essential aspect of mapping that plays a significant role in determining the level of detail that a map can display.

In this blog post, we will explore the importance of scales in mapping. We will aim to provide a clear explanation of what a scale is in the world of mapping and the role that it plays. We will also discuss the different types of scales used in mapping, such as the graphic scale and the representative fraction scale, and how they are used to represent distances on a map.

If you’re interested in finding out more, then let’s get started! First things first, we need to grasp a better understanding of what a map scale is. 

Photo by Leah Kelley

What is a map scale?

When we talk about the “scale” of a map, we refer to the way that it is measured. If you’re wondering why we use scales when creating maps of the Earth, the answer is pretty simple. The planet that we live on is pretty big. Well, really big actually. The Earth has a radius of about 6371 kilometers. I’m sure that you’ve heard the phrase that a map was “drawn to scale”. This means that the little scale you see at the bottom of the page tells you what the distance measured on the paper map represents in reality. For example, 5 centimeters on a map may represent 200 kilometers in reality. 

The Earth may be large, but over time people have managed to map almost the entire globe with a fair amount of detail. This is largely achieved through the use of satellite images. Maps are used to show large landmass such as continents, and even smaller details such as towns and settlements. Scales are used to show the mathematical ratio between a tiny measurement taken on paper, to its actual distance in real time. Using the previous example, the map’s ratio would be shown as 2:10. This will result in a scale factor of 5, since 5 x 2 = 10.  

Scales are also used to represent areas of various sizes.

Local scales are used for more specific areas, often including details such as weather and climate.

Regional scales can vary in size as they tend to be used for everything from cities to states, or even multiple states depending on the purpose of the map.

Lastly, we have global scales. These scales obviously represent the globe as a whole, and are often used to pick up on globalization patterns.

The purpose and use of a scale may vary along with the different types of maps.

Image by Сергей Шабанов from Pixabay

The types of scales used on maps

Written/Verbal scales

Written scales use words to explain the relationship between the map and the actual real world distance that it represents. For example: 5 centimeters represents 200 kilometers.

Graphic scales

Graphic scales consist of bars that look similar to rulers, with labels pinpointing the distances. This type of scale makes use of segments.

Fractional scales

Fractional scales are displayed as simple ratios to indicate the relationship between the distance on the map to its real life counterpart. For example: 5:200. This tells us that 5 centimeters on the map represents 200 kilometers on Earth. There are many different types of scales used in mapping.

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

Why we use scales in mapping

  1. The actual size of an area can be easily clarified with the use of a map and its scale. 
  2. Scales are a crucial part of any map, and no map is considered complete without having one on display.
  3. No map can be accurately drawn without the use of a scale.
  4. Scales allow users to calculate the real distance on Earth that it would take to reach their chosen point or destination ahead of time with the help of a scale.
  5. All maps can be either enlarged or reduced with the aid of scales.
  6. Scales are necessary when measuring the length and/or width of various areas.
  7. Scales are extremely helpful when planning to build or managing the construction of projects by supervisors and designers.  It will also help in determining the overall cost of the project.
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

So, to wrap up…

The importance of scales in mapping cannot be overstated. Scale is a crucial aspect of cartography that determines the level of detail, accuracy, and precision of a map. It allows us to represent a large geographical area on a relatively small piece of paper or screen, making it easier to navigate. This in turn helps users to make informed decisions and to plan ahead.

The advancement of digital mapping technology has transformed the way scales are used. With the use of satellites, drones, and other modern technologies, it is now possible to create highly detailed and accurate maps that were once impossible to achieve. The way that people create maps is constantly evolving, with three dimensional maps now becoming a reality.

It’s important to remember that scales allow us to create useful and informative maps that aid in navigation, decision-making, and understanding the world around us. Take care to pay attention to scales when creating or interpreting maps to ensure that they are accurate, reliable, and effective for those that rely on them for information.

What have your experiences been with using map scales? Tell us about it in the comments section!

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