Tectonic Junction, What’s Your Function?

My last post generated a few comments from readers out there who disagreed with some of my assessments, and I wanted to start off today by mentioning that I appreciate hearing other people’s opinions on these things, and that I hope you will all continue to weigh in whether you agree with me or not. On further reflection, I think I was perhaps unfair in some elements of my critique last week. But, I have been ill for the past while, and so I’ll just pretend that my condition impaired my judgment. Of course, I’m still a bit ill now, but we’ll try to avoid a repeat.

Today’s map was submitted by my colleague Tim Wallace, who is responsible for naming this blog. We work in a building that also houses the Arthur Robinson Map Library, which occasionally gives away unwanted materials. Tim found this one on the free map table:


Detail - click for full size. Provenance unknown - obtained from Robinson Map Library, August 2009

Detail. Obtained from Robinson Map Library, August 2009.

The provenance is unknown – it’s printed on thin magazine paper with a torn edge, and the reverse side contains portions of two articles which don’t identify the publication, though the corner reads “September 1979.” On the off chance you happen to know where it comes from, please write to me at cartastrophic@gmail.com.

I found the logic behind the legend confusing for a good while until I noticed the numbers. It appears that we have a map here which shows seismic risk for various tectonic plate boundaries. Red is the highest seismic potential. A fine-grain black-and-white checkered pattern is the lowest. Peach and yellow are in-between. This seems to come up every week on this blog, but I’ll say it again: if you’re showing ordered data, like high-to-low seismic potential, use an ordered set of symbols (colors, in this case). This is one reason why the legend threw me. Areas marked “Plate motion subparallel to arc” are apparently of a moderate-to-low seismic potential. But, because of the fact that they use a checkerboard pattern, and because I hadn’t the damnedest what that phrase meant, I couldn’t tell that item #4 on the legend was part of a larger scheme. This is worse than just misuse of colors; patterns are being thrown in needlessly now, too.

I could, in fact, still be reading this whole legend wrong, and reflecting poorly on the institution that agreed to award me a bachelor’s degree a few years ago. Feel free to comment if you think you’ve got a more sensible interpretation than my idea of items 1-6 being part of an ordered scheme of seismic potential.

One final note on the colors/patterns: The legend does not explain what the white bands are.

On to the point features. The symbols for successful forecast (presumably explained in the article) and active volcano are overprinted directly on top of the other colors. Look again at the colored bands. The red or yellow appear no different when they are on land vs. on water. The printer simply put these colors directly onto the white paper. But look now at those two point symbols – notice how their color changes based on whether they’re sitting on land or water or on top of something else. The printer put purple ink on top of green or blue or whatever was already there, instead of leaving a white space, as they did for the bands. Not sure what happened there, though there may be a reasonable explanation that someone more familiar with late 1970s printing technology can give. It does make the points very hard to see in some areas – I originally counted four stars, but now I can find eight. It also means that the point features shown in the legend do not match the color found on the map.

I’m hoping the magazine article makes the meaning of the Tsunami symbol clearer. Is this map showing Tsunamis that happened in the last decade? Ones happening right now? Not sure.

Note that the legend refers to various filled areas as being “sites” of earthquakes. Why are these not point features? Earthquakes have an epicenter, and move more in a circular outward fashion than a wide lateral band fashion. There may be more going on, as far as data processing goes (and, again, I wish I had the article that accompanies this), but it’s perplexing. Maybe the author(s) went with bands because it’s easier to see the bands than to dig out information out of scattered points? I’ll not be too hard on this, because it’s more mysterious than bad, without information to help understand why the map author(s) may have done this.

There are exactly two labels on the main map: Oaxaca, and Gulf of Alaska. Maybe those are both significant in the article, but it seems very strange to see just those two. They should probably be set in different type, at least, so that Oaxaca doesn’t look like the name of a sea off the Mexican coast. As a general guideline, cities and bodies of water ought to look different. One of the reasons for labeling things is to help readers who don’t already know what or where these features are. It’s entirely possible that a reader out there actually did look at this and, never having heard of Oaxaca, thought it was a water feature.

A similar problem comes up in the inset. Mexico is set in the same type as Central America. Central America is not (and was not), last I knew, a country. I’m reasonably sure Mexico is, however. But look at how they’re labeled – as though the text symbols mean the same thing in each case: country. And, of course, the tectonic plates are also set in the same type as everything else. Perhaps the mapmaker had a sponsorship deal from the makers of the typeface (I am having trouble identifying exactly which it is, on account of the scan resolution looking at the actual physical document, it appears to be Helvetica). If you are a typeface designer and want to pay me more than I deserve to use your glyphs on my maps, please contact me.

The inset would be better off having some kind of marker to show where exactly it corresponds to on the main map. Perhaps this might explain why Mexico was labeled: to help the reader locate the inset.

The water on the inset is jarring -the white makes it stand out far too much, calling your eye away from the main map. Best make it blue.

Boy, sure would be nice to have a legend to explain what’s going on with the inset. Are those blue triangles historical volcanic eruptions, or maybe earthquakes? Maybe they’re places less interesting than the Cheese Factory. And what are the little round-ish zones drawn in blue, which makes them hard to notice?

If you run this map through a filter which simulates how it might look to a person with the common red-green color vision impairment, you may notice that the green for the land and the orange for seismic potential level 2 end up looking very similar, which is rather problematic if you want to know which areas are plain land, and which areas might kill you in an earthquake.

A final reiteration of the main caveat to these criticisms – the original context for the map is missing, and the magazine article which I hope accompanied it may have helped this whole thing make more sense, and explained some things which seem out of place.

One Nice Thing: Some may disagree with me and say it’s overgeneralized, but I kind of like the simplicity of the linework. I think it works here, giving it an accessible, non-technical aesthetic. Michigan is misshapen, but I’ll live.

Another Nice Thing: Tim thinks it has a nice Schoolhouse Rock sort of feeling to it. Which is another way of getting at what I was saying above.


7 Responses to “Tectonic Junction, What’s Your Function?”

  1. 27th August, 2009 at 9:13 am

    Might as well keep up the habit of giving my two cents.

    Regarding labels: the Oaxaca and Gulf of Alaska labels, I suspect, are not really city and water labels respectively, but rather belong to two of the successful earthquake forecasts. For that reason I accept the use of the same type. I’ll make up for that defense with another complaint, though. Those two sites are perhaps significant in the magazine article, but even so, when there are only six on the map in total, why not just label them all? In the inset, I also am willing to accept the same type for Mexico and Central America because this is not a political reference map. Those labels are indicating regions, and whether those coincide with a country is not especially important.

    But sure, it might have been nice for ANY of the different kinds of features on this map to be labeled differently. Looks rather Helvetica-ish to me (not that I’m an expert or it’s easy to see). That was a typeface specifically designed for geologic maps, wasn’t it…?

    • 2 Daniel Huffman
      27th August, 2009 at 9:32 am

      I was thinking it might be Helvetica, but I can’t quite tell how the bars come together on the “K,” and whether or not there’s a small foot on the “G,” due to the scan. I left the original document at work, so I’ll have a close look at it then. I have not heard, though, about Helvetica’s possible connections to geologic mapping.

    • 3 Daniel Huffman
      27th August, 2009 at 12:53 pm

      An addendum: it’s indeed Helvetica, or something very similar. I know you were waiting on the edge of your seat.

  2. 4 Pablo el aviador
    2nd February, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    It appears this map was spot-on for the Haiti earthquake in January 2010.

  3. 5 Anthony
    27th August, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Earthquakes do indeed have an epicenter, and a hypocenter (the point of origin in 3 dimensions), but every large earthquake involves movement over an extended area of fault. In the case of the recent big earthquake in Chile, approximately 400 km of fault ruptured (there’s a total area, too, but I don’t know off the top of my head how deep the fault rupture in Chile extended).

    The recent earthquake in Chile is in the “zone 2” orange band just north of the “zone 6” gray band which represents the great 1960 Chile earthquake. The 2006 Indonesian earthquake occurred in the red zone covering Sumatra, and the fault rupture was pretty much most of that red area.

  4. 6 Kim
    1st December, 2014 at 12:58 pm

    I would also like to add that is seems as though South Western Canada, and the North Western Untied States has been left out entirely which is odd considering that the area is seismically active, has had a major tsunami in the last 100 years, and is at high risk of a very large magnitude earthquake. Every other region in the ring of fire has been analyzed, and there is no acknowledgement that the data is incomplete which may lead a viewer who did not know otherwise to believe that there is no seismic activity or plate boundaries in the area. Maybe the accompanying text addresses this in some way but without it we are left with a false impression of what actually is going on in the area!

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