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How are different map projections used?

Every flat map misrepresents the surface of the Earth in some way. No map can rival a globe in truly representing the surface of the entire Earth. However, a map or parts of a map can show one or more - but never all - of the following: True directions. True distances. True areas. True shapes.

For example, the basic Mercator projection is unique; it yields the only map on which a straight line drawn anywhere within its bounds shows a particular type of direction, but distances and areas are grossly distorted near the map's polar regions.

On an equidistant map, distances are true only along particular lines such as those radiating from a single point selected as the center of the projection. Shapes are more or less distorted on every equal-area map. Sizes of areas are distorted on conformal maps even though shapes of small areas are shown correctly. The degree and kinds of distortion vary with the projection used in making a map of a particular area. Some projections are suited for mapping large areas that are mainly north-south in extent, others for large areas that are mainly east-west in extent, and still others for large areas that are oblique to the Equator.

The scale of a map on any projection is always important and often crucial to the map's usefulness for a given purpose. For example, the almost grotesque distortion that is obvious at high latitudes on a small-scale Mercator map of the world disappears almost completely on a properly oriented large-scale Transverse Mercator map of a small area in the same high latitudes. A large-scale (1:24,000) 7.5-minute USGS Topographic Map based on the Transverse Mercator projection is nearly correct in every respect.

A basic knowledge of the properties of commonly used projections helps in selecting a map that comes closest to fulfilling a specific need.

Learn more:

Transverse Mercator and U.S. Geological Survey Digital Products