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Geology 12 Geological Skills Contour Lines

Contour Lines Lines of equal value on a chart or a map. In geology (on topographic maps), these are
often used to represent elevations. They can also be used in meteorology to represent atmospheric
pressure (called isobars) or temperatures (isotherms) or in other disciplines to represent just about any

Ex: Below are three different examples of contour lines.

Contours of Elevation
Isobars (pressure) Magnetic Field Declination

Right now, we will concentrate on contour lines for elevation, as we will be looking at topographic maps.

Topographic Maps
These are the maps used by geologists, hikers, engineers or anyone else interested in what the terrain is
like in an area. Once you know how to use them you can find mountain peaks, low valleys, easy hiking
routes, possible streams and anything else about the shape of the land.

Things to know about a map:

1. Scale most topographic maps in Canada are either 1 : 50 000 scale or 1 : 250 000 scale.
Scale Meaning

1 : 50 000 1 cm = 0.5 km

1 : 250 000 1 cm = 2.5 km

This lets you measure or calculate the distances between various locations.

Ex: Map of Stanley Park in Vancouver

Map of Stanley Park (1:50 000)

Determine the straight line distance

from Brockton Point to Lookout Point.

If you followed the paths, how far

would the walk be between Brockton
Point and Lookout Point?
2. Contour Intervals the elevation between contour intervals. This is important to know because
not every contour line will have an elevation written on it (it makes the map too full) so we need
to add or subtract the intervals to find the actual elevation. These may be in meters (often 10 or
20 meter intervals) or in feet (on American maps, usually 50 or 100 ft intervals). These numbers
tell us how high above sea level the ground is at that particular place.

Ex: What is the contour interval for this map (in meters)?

You have a 200m and a 300m index line.

How many intervals are there between the two
index lines?

How much elevation is there between 200m

and 300m?

How large is each interval?

What is the elevation at point X?

A quick look at contour lines can also give you an overall picture of the area.

Contour lines close together means there is a great change in elevation over a very short
horizontal distance. This means the slope is very steep.

Contour lines spread out means there is very little change in elevation. This means it is a
gentle hill or fairly flat surface.

V-shapes usually indicate ravines or narrow valleys. If these are filled with water, they are
streams. The V points upstream.

When looking at topographic maps, try to keep in mind the 3D image they represent.
Complete the following exercise to see the relief of the terrain for this area.

Place a point on the graph below that corresponds to the elevation for each location along the transect
from A to B. Connect the dots to see what this area would look like for the side.

Use coloured pencils to complete the following:

On the map:
a) Colour in RED the area with the steepest slope (or gradient)
b) If it rained at point B, colour in GREEN the path the water would take down the slope.
c) Colour in BLUE the most likely location for water to pool after a rain storm.
d) Place the letter X over the highest point on the map.
e) If you had to build a road through this area, draw in BROWN where you would put it. Explain
Match each of the topographic maps (contour lines) with the appropriate relief (shape of the area).