Thursday, February 2

Most maps misrepresent mountain features. This “oil stain” aims to fix it

We are so used to them, studying them in school and consulting them when we need to locate a remote mountain range or island, that we no longer question how they work; but… Have you ever wondered why physical maps are like this and not otherwise? What are those colors? By what criteria are they distributed? And how do its creators manage to capture, on the same world map, a Din A4 size map, the brutal scale of altitudes that goes from the 10.9 km depth of the Challenger Abyss to the 8.8 km height of the Everest?

The programmer Drew Roos has raised all these questions and some more. And thanks to his questions and knowledge of computer science and design, he has produced a map that, he assures, corrects many of the “weak points” of conventional hypsometric planes, those that represent the relief and changes in altitude of the terrain. playing with colors.

A huge “oil slick”

The result is Oilslick, a term that refers to an oil or petroleum stain. It is not a metaphor or a poetic outburst from Drew Roos. No. The map, indeed, resembles a huge multicolored patch of diesel extending over a pool of water. Except that in Oilslick each change in tonality, each ramification, corresponds to a fluctuation in the altitude of the terrain. The effect is amazing, with images having an almost “organic” appearance.

What exactly is Roos looking for? Basically, correct the weaknesses of the physical maps.

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Hypsometric maps typically use very few colors, which limits them in capturing subtle and gradual changes in terrain elevation. To compensate for this and, above all, to highlight the details in coastal regions, it is common for those who design them to “skew” the palettes. The problem: this results in a loss of accuracy in higher regions, such as mountain ranges. Sometimes, to palliate it, the authors shade the highest reliefs; but that solution is not perfect and makes it difficult, for example, to see if one peak is higher than another.

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To top it off, Roos adds, almost all hypsometric maps are drawn with “the same damn color palette,” ranging from green to tan, red, and white. damn why? Well, because it can —and this is another one of those ideas that we tend to overlook by dint of seeing the physical planes repeated over and over again— give rise to confusion. “The pallet encourages unfounded assumptions on the ground cover. The viewer sees the green and thinks of ‘forest’, when in fact a low area can be a desert. The tan color of the higher areas suggests arid plains, but it could also be a forest, “he muses.


General view of the Iberian Peninsula.

Canary Islands

La Gomera and Tenerife.

Mouth of the Guadalquivir

Mouth of the Guadalquivir.

North Subplateau

North sub-plateau.


The Pyrenees, the course of the Ebro and the Catalan coast.

In order to address all these “weaknesses” Oilslick seeks to maximize the contrast in small differences in elevation, maintain a balance between altitude ranges, without favoring any in particular, and facilitate comparisons on small surfaces and even between large distances. “Each elevation value has a unique and distinctive color,” she points out. As for color confusion, Roos stresses that her map “consciously breaks” with the current standard.

“The map explodes into detail in a way that reminds me of the old fractal renders I used to do when I was 15 years old,” jokes Roos. To achieve the “oily” look of it, Oilslick mostly plays with lightness and dynamic range. “Pitch progresses more slowly with elevation. The hue completes a full cycle, passing through all the colors of the rainbow, throughout the Earth’s elevation range—9,275m between the Dead Sea and Mount Everest, rounded to 9,500 or 19 luminosity cycles. Therefore, each cycle is a slightly different color from the previous one, “says the programmer, who has focused his work on the continents.

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Riverbed of the Amazon on the map of Roos.

African Coast Facing Cape Verde

African coast off Cape Verde.

Andes And Coast Of South America

The Andes and part of the South American coast.


Denmark and part of Sweden.


French coast.

In the design he has played with zig zag cycles and the intensity of colours. In the ascending regions it uses saturated tones and in the descending ones it applies the opposite logic, maneuvering with the degradation. “When the colors darken, if they are saturated it means they go down, while if they are desaturated it means they go up,” he says. His work is based on the Munsell color system and offers 3″/90m data resolution and up to zoom level 11.

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Roos acknowledges that by dispensing with shading “it’s easy to lose the big picture” and not appreciate with the naked eye the great geographical accidents. Understanding the map well requires time and patience; but that does not mean that its global effect is fascinating. “I’m very pleased. The map is lush, beautiful, and a bit mind-boggling,” he admits.

Oilslick also demonstrates, of course, that a map can be All a work of art.

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