Map Race to Keep Pace Mapmakers' Art Can Illustrate More Than Geographic Detail, but Changing Boundaries Keep Cartographers on Their Toes

Article excerpt

THE political disintegration of the Soviet Union has been a quickly unfolding drama for most of the world. But here in the glow of light tables and the library-like calm of the National Geographic Society's cartographic division, the mapmaker's job of plotting political upheaval in exacting lines and colors will take many months.

John Q. Public can watch the world change before his eyes on the television screen, but he can't hold the detail of new world realities in his hands until mapmakers can sort it all out.

"We're waiting for the dust to settle," explains John Garver, the Society's chief cartographer. "To put out a map now would be preemptive. We don't even know what the Soviet Union will be named."

Boundaries, spellings, and names change constantly, so maps and atlases are revised frequently: every five to 10 years at the Geographic Society and annually at Rand McNally, the world's largest commercial mapmaker.

But world events of the past two years rival World War II and the 1960s decolonization of Africa in the magnitude of map changes, say cartographers. So the map publishing patterns have been altered greatly.

Rand McNally will publish the first complete new edition since 1949 of its popular Cosmopolitan World Atlas, says company spokesman Conroy Erickson.

The Geographic Society's latest atlas - the revised sixth edition - was published last October and included the reunited Germany. But the Society's mapmakers anticipate that the massive changes in the Soviet Union will cause at least 40 map plates in the atlas to change.

Further, because of interest generated by the Gulf War, the reunification of Germany, and now the Soviet changes, the 240,000 copies of last year's revised atlas are expected to be sold out by Christmas, says Mr. Garver. So a revision or a completely new seventh edition is expected to be published within nine months.

A tour of the 73-member cartography division suggests the upheaval of detail a new Soviet map entails. A roughed-out version in pencil on tracing paper tacked to a wall will evolve into a full-color, computer-generated product over the months. …