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Reading Maps with a Critical Eye: Becoming an Informed Map Reader
A colored geologic map printed on a large-format inkjet printer takes on an aura of authority. Most people who look at a printed map assume it's "right." As an informed map reader, however, you must remember that a geologic map is a representation of an area's geology. Geologic maps are partly objective data and partly subjective interpretation; they are in part the opinion of the geologist. Supported by facts and data, yes, but an opinion nonetheless. As such, this opinion or interpretation may change with the acquisition of new data over time. To understand this concept is to be well on the way to intelligent map use. A geologic map must be read as an interpretation of geologic observations at a certain point in time. So how can you gauge the accuracy and reliability of a geologic map? Start by considering the following questions.
What type of publication is it?
Is the map a progess map, an open-file map, or a published map?
When was it published?
Geologic mapping is an ongoing process. Over time, new data is often added to the store of information collected for a certain area. The addition of this new data may cause geologic units to be reclassified, renamed, grouped, or split, and may produce a new interpretation, resulting in a new map pattern. The open-file system was developed to allow for maps to be easily revised and updated, showing the most recent interpretations. It's possible for new open-file information to be more accurate than older published maps. So make sure you have the most up-to-date information available.
Have you gathered any associated maps and reports?
An accompanying report may give details such as how long the author worked in the area, sections of the map in which interpretation was difficult, or areas lacking reliable outcrop information. The report may also list other sources in a "Previous Work" section or the bibliography. Consulting these other sources may give an indication of previous interpretations in the area, or what information the map was based on. The text itself may be rather difficult to understand, especially if it is a technical report. However, it is often worthwhile to wade through the report to gather extra information.
Also be aware of the information shown on related maps. Surficial materials maps show the data points used to construct surficial geology maps. Surficial geology maps aid in the development of significant aquifer maps and coastal landslide hazards maps. So, for the total picture, investigate the interrelationship of the various maps.
Large or Small, Simple or Complex
What's the scale of the map?
As a map user, you must be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of maps at various scales. The scale of a map is the ratio of a distance on the map to the distance it represents on the ground. For example, a scale of 1:24,000 means that one inch on the map represents 24,000 inches (or 2000 ft) on the ground.
Before you select a map, decide why you need it and how you will use it -- large scale for detail or small scale for regional trends.
How does generalization relate to map scale?
Every geologic map is a representation of the actual geology on the ground. However, the mere act of rendering that geology on a piece of paper necessitates that boundaries be simplified. The smaller the scale of the map, the more simplification and generalization is needed (Figure 1a, Figure 1b). When small-scale maps are compiled from two or more large-scale maps covering an area, boundaries may be adjusted to join boundaries on adjacent maps. Complicated areas may be simplified (Figure 2a, Figure 2b). Units covering small areas on the large-scale map may be removed entirely. In some areas, boundaries may be inferred to fill in "blanks." Areas without much detail may be that way because no one has spent much time mapping there. There may actually be quite a bit of complicated geology that has yet to be mapped. When considering your use of the map, keep in mind the accuracy of the boundaries between units. Realize that the boundaries on smaller scale maps are generalized and may not be in the "exact" location of the contact on the ground, and the geology may be much more complex than shown.
All about Data
Where are the data points located?
All geologic maps are based on measurements taken in the field. Nature, however, often gets in the way. For mappers of surficial deposits, vegetation, water bodies, and swamps obscure the underlying materials (Figure 3). The mapper must dig through this vegetation and overlying soil to see what lies beneath. For bedrock mappers, surficial materials cover much of Maine. Only where bedrock pokes through to the surface can measurements be taken (Figure 4). In Maine, there is no program for drilling bedrock cores to determine actual underground relationships. Thus, in areas with little data, contacts must be interpreted based on landforms and interpolation of measurements taken at outcrops. So, simply put, look for the data points on a geologic map -- that's where the accuracy is. Be aware that data used to construct some maps are shown on related map series. For example, much of the data used for surficial geology maps are shown on surficial materials maps.
How can you envision the third dimension?
It is an obvious, but important concept to remember that a map only shows the pattern of geologic units at the land surface. A map is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world. Whether it be surficial materials or bedrock, the various layers extend below the land surface to different depths and in different directions. The lines and colors on the map give you the 2-dimensional pattern of the geology. To understand the 3rd dimension, you must refer to the map symbols, cross sections if available, or maybe even to another map. Bedrock maps often include cross sections (Figure 5) which show a schematic representation of subsurface rock relationships. In the absence of a cross section, the dips and plunges shown by the structure symbols give an indications of subsurface trends to a trained map reader. Subsurface data for surficial geology maps is shown on surficial materials maps in test hole and well logs and descriptions of gravel pits (Figure 6). Correlation of the thicknesses and depths of materials on these maps will give an indication of subsurface trends. Visit GeoBlocks 3D for an interesting visual introduction to subsurface geology.
A Snapshot in Time
Can the geologic boundaries in an area change?
Over human time scales, the bedrock geology of an area is essentially unchanging (with exceptions for events like volcanic eruptions - not likely in Maine). Surficial geology is generally very slowly changing, again with exceptions for events like major floods or coastal storms which can alter the shapes of rivers or coastal shorelines. But, geologic maps are interpretations of the geology of an area created from observations of the natural landscape. Time constraints, funding, and project focus determine how much information is gathered. The geologist then "connects the dots" to create the map and interpret the data. The resulting map portrays the geologist's interpretation based on the available information at that point in time (Figure 7). Future projects in the same area may uncover new outcrops, produce new seismic lines, or describe recent gravel pits. Due to the collection of this new information, a geologic map may be revisited. The new observations will often refine the geologist's interpretation, the way the dots are connected. Think of a geologic map as an evolving portrait -- it is not static, it can change over time (Figure 8).
What happens when the shape of the land changes?
Geologic maps portray the earth's geology at a specific point in time. Natural and man-made processes may change the shape of the land after the map is made. Erosion, especially in coastal areas, is constantly changing the shape of the land surface. The shape of today's beaches and bluffs may not be the same tomorrow after a storm or a landslide. Gravel operations mining sand and gravel may actually eliminate sections of esker or other glacial features. Keep this in mind when reading a geologic map -- it is a "snapshot in time" which represents the conditions present when the map was made. This is especially true on maps portraying coastal geology and surficial materials.
Do the names of geologic units match between adjacent maps?
Nomenclature describing geologic units evolves over time. Bedrock formations named by geologists 50 or 100 years ago may now have entirely different names. The actual rock described, however, has not changed -- only the name has changed (Figure 9). This often occurs when geologists work in widely separated parts of the state, each naming the rocks in their local area. Over time, the extent of mapping expanded until study areas became adjacent. At this point, it was often recognized that each geologist was calling the same rock by a different name. Recent small-scale compilation maps have attempted to standardize formation nomenclature, but many out-of-date names still exist on older maps. So in reading the map be aware of this possibility and carefully read the rock descriptions in each map explanation.
Do geologic boundaries match between adjacent maps?
The interpretation of geologic information evolves over time. New information in surrounding quadrangles may alter map patterns. If you are viewing adjacent quadrangles, look for "border faults" (Figure 10). The discrepancies at map borders represent differences in interpretation between map authors due to new data or date of publication. You may need a geologist to resolve these discrepancies.
Last updated on October 12, 2012
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