World maps: a diverse collection

I’m happy to have recently been able to travel to a huge variety of different environments, and as a result I wanted to look into world geographical distributions and diversity through maps.

I thought I’d start by working along the themes as inspired by David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II. It has 6 episode themes: Islands, Mountains, Jungles, Deserts, Grasslands, Cities.


In looking into how these different concepts could be mapped, I ran into a few issues. This list actually incorporates a few different geographical and biological concepts and taxonomies, so let’s take a look. As it turns out, you get rather different world maps, depending on who you ask…


  • The episodes are most closely related to the concept of habitats, as defined by the World Wildlife Fund (Forest, Ocean, Freshwater, Grasslands, Wetlands, Polar, Deserts and Mountains) – which perhaps covers a more complete set of living environments, but is missing Islands and Cities:Capture.PNGThere isn’t really a map that directly goes with this, but here’s the closest, with a couple of extra forest categories:Image result for major biomes of the world
  • Habitats are similar to the more official geographical concept of biome, with many more granular subcategories, and gives a very busy map as a result:  
  • You can also map the world by biodiversity, the density of different animal species, as per this beautiful map, designed to focus wildlife conservation efforts (here): Brazil really stands out here as having huge biodiversity. And if it’s seeing as many different animals as possible that you’re after, there’s a Top 10 list of countries to travel to here:  #1 Brazil, #2 Colombia, #3 Indonesia, #4 China, #5 Mexico, #6 Peru, #7 Australia, #8 India, #9 Ecuador, #10= US & Venezuela.


  • Topography: to address the ‘Mountains’ episode that was missing from the above biological categorisations, we can also look at maps coded by elevation (land height above sea level). The key highest mountain ranges of the Southern Andes, the Rockies and the Himalayas show up distinctly here:Global Elevation MapBargraph refrencing the colours on the maps.
  • The Islands episode of Planet Earth is unusual – it’s much harder to find a good map of where the islands of the world are located, and their distribution. Here are the major ones:Islands.jpg
  • Adding on glaciers to the polar areas: the Randolph Glacier inventory plots where all glaciers (excluding ice sheets) are in the world – Patagonia, New Zealand, western Canada and Nepal stand out here. You can also look here to see how the relative sizes of these glaciers compare.The Randolph Glacier Inventory is a compilation of all the World’s glaciers. It is the first global catalogue of glaciers, and it was developed to help IPCC scientists improve estimates of sea level rise. Image from NASA Earth Observatory.
  • Climate – note that the Mountains & Polar episode themes have their own classification on this basis too:Image result for climate map worldOr of course climate maps can get much more complex…especially if you look at temperature and rainfall (respectively) separately over time:Image result for temperature map world   Image result for rainfall map world
  • Hydrology / river maps: wow! Geographer Robert Szucs has made these ‘vein maps’ of the world’s river basins – varying thickness of the lines indicates stream order. Check out some more here Image result for hydrology map art
  • Seismic: you can also look at world maps by volcano & earthquake events. Note the world map is centred differently here, to highlight the ‘Ring of Fire’. Here Chile (where we experienced a mere 6.2 quake recently!) & the Pacific Islands stand out: Image result for world maps earthquakes volcanoes Overlaying both volcanoes and earthquakes, the same plate boundaries emerge:Image result for map of both volcanoes and earthquakes overlaid
  • Geology – maps by soil / rock type are again rather complex:Image result for soil geology map world


Now moving away from the Planet Earth II episodes, but just looking at a few more ways to map the world:

  • Political borders: countries, timezones and continents. Perhaps how you are most used to seeing a world map, but here’s an unusual take on it… Related image
  • Population density, as depicted in Human Ooze (downward axis at each lat/long gridpoint), a bit icky!:Human ooze: World population density by latitude/longitude, with traditional chart axis flipped [OC] [1500x765] It is interesting to compare world population against world lights (LHS: Google Maps lets you explore night city lights with NASA’s Black Marble imagery) and world technology connectivity (RHS: tracks devices connected to the internet, with red shadowing indicating a high density of devices – note India, with low connectivity despite its huge population): Lights and net.png
  • Economic distribution – from ViewsOfTheWorld, cartogram with countries resized according to their GDP output:
  • Transport links – the famous flight / shipping routes travel time map, to highlight how the world is getting smaller, and the hardest-to-get-to places e.g. Nepal: Related image And mapping the density of flight & shipping routes respectively is pretty cool: Routes

Of course there are tons more ways to encode information into a world map, but I hope this gives a sense of the complexity of overlapping influences at work in our complicated world – and the array of differently diverse places to travel to and see for yourself!

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