A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.

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E.C. Marchant, the cartographer aboard the Great Barrier Reef Expedition of 1928-1929, was remarkably DIY. To chart the coral corridors fringing the Australian coast, he used a jerry-rigged plane table made of a wooden board, a camera stand, and a foresight made of floss. “This home-made plane table was in constant use for two summers and came to no harm,” his team later recalled.

The Low Isles, from a survey by M.A. Spende, T.A. Stephenson, and E.C. Marchant, 1929. (Great Barrier Reef Expedition 1928-1929 Scientific Reports, Volume III, No. 2)

Cross-referencing these analog maps with pioneering aerial photography, Marchant and his associates, M.A. Spender and T.A. Stephenson, produced critical knowledge about the shape, formation, and ecology of the Great Barrier Reef. Their work informed decades of research about coral reefs around the world—delicate ecosystems that feed schools of fish, protect against storms and waves, and possibly regulate water temperatures.

Now those reefs are in peril. Pollution, hurricanes, and warming oceans are bleaching and killing reefs at record speed, upsetting the many forms of life that they balance. To understand the extent of the losses, and how to slow them down, scientists are in pursuit of higher-definition maps that show more than the contours of these undersea rainforests, and not only those that are world-famous.

The Allen Coral Atlas is one ambitious attempt: Funded by Vulcan Inc., a philanthropy founded by the late Microsoft co-founder (and avid diver) Paul G. Allen, the project is using advanced satellite imagery and AI to trace every reef under the sea, as well as their many “benthic zones”—seagrass, sand, algae, rocks, and of course, the coral itself.

A screenshot of the Great Barrier Reef, as mapped and labeled in the Allen Coral Atlas. (Allen Coral Atlas)

Ninety years later, its production is a far cry from Marchant’s analog cartography. A constellation of satellites is penetrating the depths at a resolution of about 12 feet per pixel, and computer algorithms are helping to classify the reefs and correct for clouds and sun. With the hopes to map all of the world’s coral by 2020, the data “has the potential to become a global tool for informing coral conservation efforts and measuring their effectiveness,” said Lauren Kickham, the senior director of impact at Vulcan Inc.  

Explore the atlas here.


Welcome to Newarke

Newarke is an industrial port city with factories, highways, a six-line subway system, and tons of green space. It’s part of the larger urban county called Tayleside, population 2,350,997. Never heard of it? That’s partly because Newarke is new—in the works since 1997—and because it exists only in the mind of Paul Cannon and his many hand-drawn maps.

A map of Newarke. (Courtesy of Paul Cannon)

Cannon, now a writer, artist, garden designer, and MapLab reader, says that he witnessed the de-industrialization of Britain as a child growing up in the 1980s. As he watched old mills and factories be replaced by business parks and shopping malls, he found an outlet in imaginary mapmaking. That way, Cannon writes via email, he could retain his “make-believe industrial landscapes forever, while the real world moved into a clean and technologically focused society.”

Cannon is still mapping Newarke’s many hinterlands, and is also writing a children's book set in a nearby village (also imaginary). He has exhibited his maps in his (real) hometown of Surrey, and hopes to eventually publish the project as a book.

Have you drawn an imaginary map? Share it with me here.


Mappy links

The people’s encyclopedia: Mapping the U.S. by its most Wikipedia-d locals. (The Pudding) ♦ Too much guidance: An essay on breaking the Western faith in GPS. (Undark) ♦ Still catching up: Apple Maps has big new upgrades. (CNN) ♦ Navigating the new economy: St. Louis, Missouri, wants to be a hub for the geospatial industry. (St. Louis Public Radio) ♦ ICYMI: The cartographer known as “Michelangelo of gerrymandering” also helped put a controversial citizenship question on the U.S. Census, for the explicit purpose of amplifying Republican power. (New York Times)


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Happy June!

Laura Bliss

About the Author

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