What are Contour lines? | Types, Application & Features

A contour line is a curve that joins points of equal value. In cartography, contour lines join the points of equal elevation above a given standard level like the mean sea level. A contour map is a map to illustrate the topographical features of an area using contour lines. It is often used to show the heights, slopes and depths of valleys and hills. The space between two consecutive contour lines in a contour map is called as the contour interval which shows the difference in the elevation.

The best feature of using contour lines in mapping, is that it can represent the 3-dimensional surface of the any terrain in a 2-dimensional space i.e. on a contour map. By interpreting the Contour map the user is able to infer the relative gradient of the surface. Be it the depth or the height of a landscape, a contour map can help to represent the topography of the area. The space between two lines and the spacing along the lines provides user with important information.

Contour lines are curved, straight or a mix of both lines which do not cross each other in a map.  The reference for elevation indicated by contour lines is usually mean sea. The space between consecutive contour line determines the gradient of the surface that is being represented and is termed as the “interval”. If the contour lines are spaced very closely then they represent and indicate steep slope.  If the lines are spaced far apart then it represents a gentle slope. Streams and rivers in a valley are represented by a “v” or a “u” in a contour map.

Contour Lines

Related: What is satellite mapping & imaging?, Digital Elevation Model

Contour lines are often typified with the prefix “iso” which means “equal’ in Greek, as per the type of variable being mapped. The prefix “iso” can be replaced with “isoallo” which specifies that the contour line joins points where a given variable change at the same rate over a given period of time. Although the term contour line is commonly used, specific names are often used in meteorology where there is a greater possibility of viewing maps with different variables at a given time. Equally spaces and evenly spaced lines, it indicates uniform slope.

History of contour lines

The use of lines joining points of equal value has been existent since a long time although they were known by names other than contour lines. The first recorded use of contour lines were made to illustrate the depth of the river Spaarne located near Haarlem by a Dutchman named Pieter Bruinsz in the year 1584. Contour lines denoting constant depth are now known as “isobaths”. Throughout the 1700s contour lines have been used in numerous charts and maps to illustrate depths and heights of water bodies and landscapes.

Edmond Halley in 1701 used contour lines on a chart of magnetic variation. Nicholas Cruquius used isobaths at an equal interval of 1 fathom to draw the bed of the river Merwede in the year 1727, while Philippe Buache used an interval of 10 fathoms for the English Channel in the year 1737. In 1746 contour lines were used to map land surface by Domenico Vandelli who drew a map of the Duchy of Modena and Reggio. In 1774 conducted the Schiehallion experiment to measure the mean density of the Earth. The concept of contour lines was used in surveying the mountainside for the experiment. Thereafter the use of contour lines for cartography became a standard method. This method was used in 1791 by J.L Dupain-Treil for a map of France and in 1801 Haxo used it for his projects in Rocca d’Aufo. Since then there has been a widespread use of contour lines for mapping and other applications.

In 1889 Francis Galton proposed the term “isogram” as a reference for lines indicating equality or similarity in qualitative or quantitative features. The terms “isogon”, “isoline” and “isarithm” are commonly used to describe contour lines.  The term “isoclines” refers to a contour line that joins points with equal slope.

Types and Applications of contour lines

Contour lines have been used extensively in maps and representation of graphical and statistical data. These can be drawn as plan view or as a profile view. Plan view allows the representation of the map in a way an observer would see it from above. The profile view is often a parameter that is mapped vertically. For e.g. terrains of a location can be mapped as a plan view while the air or noise pollution in the area can be represented as a profile view.

If you find a very steep slope in a map, you will notice that the contour lines converge into one “carrying” contour of contours. In this case last line sometimes has tick marks pointing toward low ground. Cliffs are also shown by contour lines very close together and, in few occurrences, touching each other or very closely placed.

These are used in the various fields of study to represent a set of data over a region. However, the terms that is used to denote these lines may vary with the variation in the data type that is represented.

Most frequently used types of contour line and their uses:

1. Ecology: Isopleth is used for contour lines that represent a variable which cannot be measured at a point but is a derivative of a data that  is collected over a larger area for example population density.

Similarly, in ecology Isoflor, an isopleth is used to connect regions with similar biological diversity showing distribution patterns and trends of a species.

2. Environmental Science: There are varied applications of contour lines in environmental science. Pollution density maps are useful to indicate areas of higher and lower contamination levels allowing the possibility of scaling pollution in the area.

Isoplats are used to indicate acid precipitation in a map while isobels are used to indicate levels of noise pollution in the area.

The concept of contour lines have been used in contour planting and contour ploughing which is known to reduce soil erosion by a great extent in areas along river banks or other water bodies.

3. Social sciences: Contour lines are frequently used in social sciences to demonstrate variations or to display a comparative study of a variable over a particular area. The name of the contour line varies with the type of information that it represents. For example in Economics, these are used to describe features that may vary over an area, like an isodapane represents cost of travel time, isotim refers to the cost of transport from the source of raw materials, isocost curve represents equal production from alternative usage and Isoquant represents equal quantity of production from alternative input usages.

4. Statistics: In statistical studies contour lines are used to join the points with the same value of probability density, these are called as isodensity lines or as isodensanes.

5. Meteorology: Contour lines have a significant usage in meteorology. Data received from weather stations and weather satellites help in making the meteorological contour maps showing weather conditions like precipitation, air pressure over a period of time. Isotherms and isobars are used in multiple overlapping contour sets to present various thermodynamic factors affecting the weather conditions.

Temperature study: These are a type of contour lines that connects points in a map with equal temperatures is called as an isotherm and those connecting areas with equal solar radiation is called as isohel. A contour line connecting areas with equal mean annual temperature is called as isogeotherms and that connecting areas with equal mean winter temperature is called as isocheim while that connecting equal mean summer temperature is called as isothere.

Study of wind: In meteorology, a contour line joining points with constant wind speed is called as isotach. An isogon refers to a constant wind direction.

Rainfall and humidity: Various terms are used to refer to the contour lines that join areas with similar precipitation and humidity content.

  • Isohyet or isohyetal line refers to equal rainfall regions in a map.
  • Isochalaz joins points in a map representing the areas receiving constant frequency of hailstorms.
  • Isobront joins points in map representing areas which experienced thunderstorm activity simultaneously.
  • Isoneph indicates equal cloud cover.
  • Isohume refers to the contour line joining areas with constant relative humidity.
  • Isodrostherm refers to constant or equal dew point areas.
  • Isopectic contour line denotes regions with identical or similar dates of ice formation while isotac refers to the thawing dates.

Barometric pressure: In meteorology, the study of atmospheric pressure is important to predict future weather patterns. The barometric pressure is reduced to sea level when represented in a map. An isobar is a contour line that joins the regions with constant atmospheric pressure. Isoallobars joins points in the map with equal pressure change over a specific period of time. Isoallobars in turn can be divided into the ketoallobars and the anallobars which represents the decrease and increase in the pressure change respectively.

6. Thermodynamics and Engineering: Although these fields of study rarely involves a map contour lines finds usage in graphical representation of data and phase diagrams some of the common types of contour lines used in these fields of study are:

  • Isochor represents constant value of volume
  • Isoclines are used in differential equation
  • Isodose refers to absorption of equal dose of radiation
  • Isophote is constant illuminance that is received

7. Magnetism: Contour lines are extremely helpful in studying the magnetic field of the earth. It helps in the study of the magnetic dip and magnetic declination.

The isogon or isogonic contour lines represents the line of constant magnetic declination. The contour line that joins the points of zero magnetic declination is called as Agonic line. A contour line that joins all the points with constant magnetic force is called as isodynamic line. An isoclinic line joins all regions with equal magnetic dip while an aclinic line joins all regions with zero magnetic dip. An isoporic line joins all the points with constant annual variation of magnetic declination.

8. Geographical studies: The most common usage is in the representation of elevation and depth of an area. These contour lines are frequently used in the topographic maps to show elevation and bathymetric charts to show depths. These topographic or bathymetric maps can be used to represent a smaller area or can be used to represent larger areas like a continent. The space between consecutive contour lines called as the interval refers to the difference in the elevation or depth between the two points. The interval is usually noted in the map key.

While representing a terrain, close contours represent a steep slope or gradient while distant contours represent a shallow slope. The closed loops on the inside represent uphill while the outside shows downhill. The innermost loop on a contour map shows the highest area however if the map is that of a depression and not an elevation then short lines called “hachures” radiate from the inside of the loop.

9. Geology and Oceanography: Contour maps are used in the study of structural geology and physical and economic features of the earth’s surface. Isopach are contour lines that join points with equal thickness of geologic units.

Similarly in Oceanography areas of equal water density is represented by lines called as isopycnals and isohalines join areas with equal ocean salinity. Isobathytherms joins points with equal temperatures in an ocean.

10. Electrostatics: Electrostatics in space is often depicted with the isopotential map. The curve joining the points with constant electric potential is called as he isopotential or the equipotential line.

Features of contour lines in contour maps

Population Dynamics

Contour maps not only allow a representation of the elevation on an elevation map or depths of the terrains, the features of the contour lines that are drawn in the map but also allows a greater understanding of the terrains that is being mapped.

Some features that are frequently used in mapping:

  • Line type can be dotted, solid or dashed. A dotted or dashed line is frequently used when there is data in the base map that could be covered by a solid line.
  • Line weightweight refers to how bold or thick the contour line has been drawn. Contour maps are often drawn with lines of varying thickness to show different numerical values or variation in terrain elevations.
  • Line Color of the Contour line color is varied in a map to distinguish it from the base map. Line color is also used to represent different set of numerical values as well.
  • Numerical marking is very important on all contour maps. It can be done alongside the contour line or it can be shown in a map key. The numerical value helps in identifying the direction of the gradient.

Topographic Map Tools

The traditional paper maps are not the only way to of contour mapping. Though they are important but with advancement in technology, maps are now in digital form. There are number of tools, mobile apps and softwares available to help you with it. These maps will be more accurate, very quick to make, easily modifiable and you can send these to your colleagues & friends too! Some of these tools are mentioned below with a short description:

  • Google Maps  Google maps are a lifesaver all over the world. These are not just used for navigating around the city but also for many other purposes.  You have various “views” available such as traffic, satellite, topographic, street etc. Turning on “Terrain” layer from options menu will give you the topographic view.
  • Gaia, ArcGIS, Backcountry Navigator (mobile Apps) – Like many other mobile apps available for both Android and IOS, iPhone users can use Gaia GPS. It provides users topographic maps along with other types. These apps can be free or paid depending on the functionality offered. Though navigation apps are not exclusively used to get topographic information but they are quite helpful. ArcGIS apps and other apps by ESRI are can be used exclusively for mapping purposes.
  • CaltopoYou cannot perform all the functions on mobiles, and this is where desktops and laptops come to rescue. There are both online platforms and installable version of softwares to help you complete your next project. Captopo is a browser-based map tool that allows you to print out custom topo maps. It also allows you to send/ transfer them to your GPS devices or smartphones. It also allows customization or maps and sharing with other users.
  • MytopoIt can be regarded as a service or map provider. It is somewhat similar to Caltopo (mentioned above), but focuses on the Canada and US (we really hope they will cover other countries too!). They provide detailed custom maps, including topo maps, satellite images and public land hunting maps of any region in the US. Super professional quality maps, which you can view online for free or have shipped as high-quality prints for a small fee.

Also Read: Geographic Information System (GIS) in Urban Planning

Tags: Tick Marks pointing, line elevation, evenly spaced, lower elevation, contour map, map scale, gradual slope, steep slope, gradient, contour interval, ridges, gully, saddle, spur, depression, fill, hill, knoll, mean sea level