Figuring Out Map Projections (GPS)

Making a map is quite a bit more challenging than you may think. A cartographer’s first challenge is taking something that’s round like the earth (technically it’s an ellipsoid that bulges in the middle and is flat at the top and bottom) and transforming it into something that’s flat, like a map.

Cartographers use a projection to reproduce all or part of a round body on a flat sheet. This is impossible without some distortion, so a cartographer decides which characteristic (area, direction, distance, scale, or shape) is shown accurately and which will be distorted.

Although my high-school geography teacher may smack me on the head with a globe for saying this, the average map user doesn’t need to know what kind of projection was used to make a map. There are some exceptions if you’re a cartographer or surveyor, but usually you won’t get in trouble if you don’t know the projection. So don’t panic if you can’t immediately tell a Lambert conformal from a Mercator or Miller projection. Just keep in mind what a projection is and that there are different types of map projections.

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