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Map Mysteries

75,000 Ready-To-Go Lesson Plans:
Teaching Earth Science and Geography with USGS Topographic and Thematic Maps

The concept of "Map Mysteries" is to use topographic and thematic maps as starting points to uncover mysteries about the cultural and physical geography of the Earth. The USGS has published over 75,000 of these maps (actually, the number is more like 250,000). Think about each of these maps as a ready-to-go lesson plan with mysteries to uncover about that corner of the planet and the people who live there.

To obtain USGS Topographic Maps: Download free, digital topographic maps in a georeferenced pdf format through the USGS Store (Click on "Map Locator & Downloader"). Order paper copies of topographic maps from the same site. You have the option of choosing from two different types of topographic maps. "US Topo" maps are computer generated and are updated every three years. They have different layers that can be turned on and off, and include an orthoimagery (air photo) layer. Free analytical tools can be downloaded for working with the US Topos. You can also download or order paper copies of the older "historical" USGS topographic maps. These have not been updated since 2003 (or much earlier). However, the historical maps were all made by hand and were optimized for readability. Students who are learning about maps might find them easier to work with than the newer US Topos.

To obtain USGS Thematic Maps: Go to the USGS Store and click on "Education Products" to browse thematic maps that are popular with educators. Many of the thematic maps in the USGS Store have a link to the map's citation in the USGS Publications Warehouse. Follow that link to download a free PDF file of the map. Some maps in the USGS Store have direct links to a free PDF. Paper copies of the maps can be ordered through the USGS Store.

For assistance, call 1-888-ASK-USGS (1-888-275-8747) or go to our Contact USGS page to request information or to initiate a live chat.

Teacher discounts are available for paper maps. Products in pdf format require Adobe Acrobat Reader

I-2206 Digital Landforms Map of the Conterminous USA

Map showing landforms of the United States

Earthquakes and Faults in the San Francisco Bay Area (1970-2003)

Bay Area Earthquakes map - Click for larger image

Callaway NW, Nebraska 1:24,000-scale Topographic Map

Callaway Northwest, Nebraska, topographic map

Earthquake Lake, Montana-Idaho 1:24,000-scale Topographic Map

Earthquake Lake, Montana, topographic map - Click for larger image

Ocean City, Maryland 1:24,000-scale Topographic Map

Ocean City, Maryland, topographic map

South Pass, Louisiana 1:24,000-scale Orthophotomap

South Pass, Louisiana, topographic map - Click for larger image

New Orleans W, Louisiana 1:24,000-scale

New Orleans West, Louisiana, topographic map - Click for larger image

Isolation Peak, CO 1:24,000-scale

Isolation Peak, Colorado, topographic map - Click for larger image

South Florida Satellite Image Map

South Florida satellite image map - Click for larger image

Integrating the Geography Standards in Teaching With Topographic Maps

The World in Spatial Terms (Location):
Spatial information tells about where things are, and about where things are in relation to each other. Different scales of USGS maps can be used to illustrate these concepts.

Places and Regions (Physical and Human Characteristics):
The description of a place includes its physical and human characteristics. This can be illustrated with topographic maps and regions of the United States can be compared with maps. Obtain Department of Defense maps from the USGS and compare regions across the world.

Physical Systems (Land, Air, Water, and Living Things):
Physical processes constantly change the Earth's surface. Physical processes also interact with living things, creating and modifying Earth's ecosystems. Weather systems, ocean currents, volcanic activity, and tectonic plate movement affect the landscape and the organisms within it. At the same time, living things release and absorb gases, build and use soil, break down rocks, dam streams, and fill in lakes.

These and many more activities make up the systems that shape Earth's geography. USGS geologic, hydrologic, natural hazards, coal, oil, gravity, geomagnetic, historical, and topographic maps can be used to illustrate these physical systems. Digital USGS data can be loaded in a Geographic Information System to illustrate these concepts, with the use of digital vector and raster files.

Human Systems (Population, Culture, and Interdependence):
Human activities shape Earth's surface. Human settlements and structures are also part of Earth's surface. When people move from one place to another they often change the landscape as they go. In addition, people in different cultures interact with their environment in different ways. USGS geologic, hydrologic, natural hazards, coal, oil, gravity, geomagnetic, historical, and topographic maps can be used to illustrate human systems. What are the dominant economic activities for the people who live in the area you have chosen to study with your maps?

Environment and Society (Human-Environmental Interactions):
Human activities change the physical environment and ecosystems. In addition, human activities are influenced by the environment and by Earth's physical processes. Thus the interactions between people and the environment occur whenever physical systems and human systems meet -- which is all of the time! USGS maps can be used to illustrate the affect of humans on their environment, and the affect of the environment on human settlement.

The Uses of Geography (Changes Over Time):
Knowing about geography helps people understand the relationships between people, places, and environments over time. Thinking geographically allows us to interpret the past, understand the present, and plan for the future. Geography gives us a "big picture" of humans' place on Earth. Illustrate this with historical editions of USGS maps, comparing them to the latest topographic edition, and discuss the extent to which the area has changed, why the area has changed, and if the changes are increasing or decreasing.

General Questions To Pose While Exploring Topographic Maps

Carter Lake, Iowa, topographic map - Click for larger image

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