Maps Take Flight

By Anderson, Robert | Natural History, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Maps Take Flight


Anderson, Robert, Natural History


Recently I read Fatal Passage, Ken McGoogan's 2002 biography of a remarkable yet largely forgotten Arctic explorer, John Rae. Traveling by dogsled, in the style of the Inuit, Rae trekked thousands of miles along the northern coast of North America to fill in the blanks on regional maps. On May 6, 1854, from atop a barren ridge, he charted a strait that now bears his name, the final link in the long-sought Northwest Passage.

Like countless explorers before him, Rae always sought the high ground, the better to observe the surrounding terrain. Later cartographers sought the vantage points afforded by balloons, airplanes, and satellites to trace the lines of lands and seas on Earth. Decades have now passed since all the blanks were filled in. Could the glory days of mapmaking have already come to an end?

To judge from some of the tools and information recently available on the Web, the glory days are just beginning. A few months ago Google launched its ambitious new "Google Earth," billed as a "3D interface to the planet" (earth. google.com). You'll need to download Google's free software to use it (it works with computers running Windows 2000 or later, but, at the time of this writing, Macintosh users are out of luck). Enter a street address, at least in the United States, Canada, and the U.K., and you will zoom seamlessly from an Apollo 8-like vantage point to right above the rooftops. You can then tilt and rotate the view and soar over the landscape like a bird. You can even exaggerate the vertical relief of the simulated landscape by a factor of three.

If your system won't run Google Earth, the company has another mapping site (maps.google.com) that does much the same thing, but without the ability to "fly" over the landscape or tilt your flight perspective. I entered my street address, but the Web site flagged next-door neighbor's house by mistake. …

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