Understanding Map Scale

Understanding Map Scale

Image of Understanding Map Scale exhibit.

Understanding Map Scale
To represent geographic features on a map, the features must be reduced in size. The extent of this reduction is expressed as the map scale. Map scale is a method for expressing how map distance compares to ground distance, or the distance on the surface of the earth. Because a map's scale determines how features are represented on the map, it also affects the overall interpretation of the map.
How to Interpret a Map Scale
Understanding the scale of a map is important if you need to know the size of the land features represented on the map or the relative distances between them. A map scale uses a dynamic ratio, 1:x, where 1 represents map distance and x represents distance on the earth. Map and earth distance are always the same unit. For example, if you have a map scale of 1:63,360, one unit of measure on the map equals 63,360 units of the same measure in the real world. If 1 is in inches, so is 63,360. In other words, one inch on the map equals 63,360 inches on the earth.
Large Scale vs. Small Scale... What's Bigger?

You will commonly see references to two types of maps: large scale maps and small scale maps. A large scale map, such as a map of city streets or a building plan, covers a small area in more detail. A small scale map, such as a world map, covers a large area in less detail. Map scale is relative, so a scale of 1:63,360 may be a large scale map compared to 1:316,800,000, but is considered small scale when compared to a map scale of 1:7,920. Remember, the smaller the number, the smaller the area covered by the map, resulting in greater detail; the larger the number, the larger the area covered by the map, resulting in less detail.
Information derived from:

UCR Science Library aerial photos viewed at different scales. (PDF)

The exhibit designed by Map Collection staff is located on the Ground Floor
of the
Science Library and will be available until July 2005.

Back to Science Library Exhibit Home

Last modified: 4/6/2006 9:35 AM

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