For the Love of Maps

By Nancy Grundahl, EPA Region 3

Every time I see a map I get a warm, fuzzy feeling. It brings back memories of my childhood. When I was young, my mother thumb-tacked a map of the United States to the wall next to my bed. I often stood on my bed in my jammies staring at it. I wondered what “outside” looked like in faraway states like Arizona and Mississippi and Oregon. Were their trees and flowers the same as in my yard? Was their dirt the same as mine?

Little did my mother know that the map would help prepare me for a career in environmental science. Knowing how to read a map is important in many of the jobs we do at EPA. Maps give us information about the slope of the land, the location of streams and lakes, land use and municipal boundaries. Maps are typically included in permit applications, environmental impact statements, and grant proposals. Here’s an example.

My favorite maps are the U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps. They cover the entire U.S. in great detail. On-the-ground surveys, aerial photographs and satellite data have improved the maps over the years. These maps, now called U.S. Topo maps, are available on the web. While it is always fun to put a paper map on the floor and get down on my hands and knees to look at it, today’s on-line versions allow users to turn data layers on and off, to zoom in and out, and to print the maps, all free of charge while sitting comfortably in a chair.

If you’ve never looked at a topographic map, give it a go. You’ll be able to figure out where that stream that runs near your home starts and where it ends. You’ll be able to see about how many feet you are above sea level. You’ll also be able to figure out your latitude (your north or south location in relation to the equator) and your longitude (your location east or west of Greenwich, England). Philadelphia, Pa., where my office is located, is at about 39° N and 75° W.

Maps can open up a whole new way of learning about your environment! It did for me.

About the author: Nancy Grundahl has worked for the Philadelphia office of EPA since the mid-80’s. Nancy believes in looking at environmental problems in a holistic, multi-media way and is a strong advocate of preventing pollution instead of dealing with it after it has been created. Nancy also writes for the “Healthy Waters for EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region” blog.