Geography Skills Handbook: tools of geography what is geography?

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Geography Skills Handbook: TOOLS OF GEOGRAPHY


  • GEOGRAPHY is the study of the world's environment and man's interaction within the environment.

  • Geography has two “strands” or parts:

  • PHYSICAL: The study of the earth's natural features, such as mountains, rivers, soil, vegetation, and weather

  • and

  • HUMAN: (Cultural) The study of human cultures and man made features.

  • All kinds of resources are used to study geography, but the most common are MAPS.


  • A map is a 2 dimensional graphic of the earth or part of the earth.

  • A person who makes maps is called a cartographer.

  • Maps are important as a tool for geography because we can show so much information about the earth on one document.

  • There are parts to maps, types of maps, and even map projections that are very important as a basis for all of geography.

Geographic Information

  • Cartographers today use many sources of data collected for their maps.

  • GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is the most accurate to date: GIS is using computers to plot points and use different sources such as satellites, maps, pictures (images)-to create an electronic layer. Each layer is given a code number which allows geographers to change and create maps easier on a computer.

  • Air Photography and Satellite Images can help gather information to then be placed on maps. Cartographers can interpret what they see and plot it on a map.

  • GPS (Global Positioning Systems) use satellites around the world to plot the exact point of location from an electronic receiver. Examples: Garmin-Tom-Tom


  • Key/ Legend: Shows information as symbols

  • Scale: Used for measuring distance (like a ruler)

  • Scale can also be shown in ratio form (ex. 1:10) or by an equation (ex. 1 inch = 10 miles)

  • Directional Arrow: All maps must have AT LEAST an arrow showing relative direction. This is called orientation

  • Compass Rose: Shows Cardinal & Intermediary Directions

Other things to look for when reading a map

  • Boundaries outlined by different colors

  • Capital Cities are indicated with a circle around them.

  • Major cities indicated by a black dot.


  • 1. Political Map- this is a map that shows political boundaries, borders, area of political entities (countries, states, territories, districts, zones, counties, provinces, etc) These types of maps may also show capitals/ other cities.

  • 2. Physical Map- This type of map uses colors to show elevation and other land/water features of the earth. This map may also show any physical feature such as mountains, oceans, rivers, valleys, etc.

  • 3. Thematic Map- This type of map shows “themes” or subjects on a map- basically any information. Anything can be shown on a map using symbols, colors, pictures, numbers, contour lines, etc. ALL THEMATIC MAPS MUST HAVE A KEY- this tells the reader what each picture/symbols/color/etc represents on the map i.e. + represents a hospital


  • Any collection of maps, graphs, and charts is called an atlas.

  • We use atlases as a geographic resource for looking up all kinds of information=

  • From where places are located

  • To population and economic information

  • To topographic information about the surface of the earth.


  • Remember to use the INDEX to help locate the location of cities, states, and countries around the world.

  • Use the KEY on the maps to read information

  • Use the SCALE of the map to find distances

  • Use the COMPASS ROSE to locate and pinpoint orientation or direction.

  • Use the Grid System once you look up the area in the index.

Parallels and Meridians: LATITUDE AND LONGITUDE

  • Reading coordinates is very important in finding location in geography.

  • Remember that you read the “x-axis” (latitude) first and then read the “y-axis” (longitude) second. (x,y)

longitude and latitude coordinates are measured in degrees. The shape of the Earth is a Sphere. It is 360 degrees around a sphere (like a circle). Each degree is divided into 60 minutes, which in turn is divided into 60 seconds. Each degree of latitude and longitude is 1/360th of the distance around the Earth. Latitude and longitude are determined by measuring the angle between the equator or Prime Meridian and any point on earth. It is read in degrees and minutes. For Example (39°36'24"N, -86°6'26"W) you would say, 39 degrees, 36 minutes, and 24 seconds north of the equator and 86 degrees, six minutes and 26 seconds west of the Prime Meridian.

Speed and Distance-Sailors needed a grid system to give absolute location-Their exact spot on the earth.

Parallels and Meridians


  • Grid maps are another way to look at finding location. Instead of latitude and longitude lines, use grid squares to find a specific place on a small area of the earth.


  • To find just the right map to use, ask yourself “What am I trying to show on my map?”

  • You don’t want to use a map that has too much distortion (being mis-shapen on a map)

  • Usually you ask the question for one of the following four map topics:

          • AREA
          • DIRECTION
          • DISTANCE
          • SHAPE



  • Mercator Map Projection: Shows accurate direction, but area & shapes are severely distorted at the poles and most accurate at the equator. Mercator projections are based on cylinders.

  • ***Sailors would use these for true direction


  • Robinson Map Projection: Shows accurate shape & size of continents, but water areas are expanded to fill in area. Robinson projections are based on ovals. ***These maps are good for data collections like in a classroom or lab.


  • Interrupted Map Projection: Shows accurate area & shape of continents, but oceans have open pie-shaped wedges are to adjust for distance.


  • Conical map Projection: comes from placing a cone over part of the globe-best suited for limited east-west areas that are not to far from the equator. It shows accurate distance, direction, & shape for the limited area mapped.

  • They are cone shaped!

AZIMUTH /Planar (aka POLAR)

  • Polar Map Projection: Used for mapping hemispheres instead of whole Earth. Shows accurate distance & direction but shape and size are distorted at the edges. Polar view is called Azimuth.

Winkel-Tripel Projection

  • Most general reference world maps use this projection. Adopted by the National Geographic Society in 1998. It has a good balance between size and shape of land areas as they are shown on the map-with the polar areas depicting less distortion of size compared to other maps.

Great Circle Routes

  • ***Airline Pilots would use these maps to follow Great Circle Routes (the shortest path between two points along the curve of the Earth)

The Great Circle Route

Great Circle Route- Upper view

Great Circle Route Finder

Small-Scale /Large Scale-Maps

Geographers use Charts and graphs for determining what factors in various situations are important


  • You MUST be familiar with maps for many different reasons…

  • Driving (Road Maps)

  • Locating places (Political Maps)

  • Traveling (Political or Physical Maps)

  • Researching (Thematic Maps)

  • Building (Topographic Maps)

  • And basically knowing where you are in relation to your surroundings!!!!

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