Extended Review: NGS Atlas of the World (Deluxe Tenth Edition) ©2015

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Extended Review: NGS Atlas of the World (Tenth edition) ©2015 by Christine Newton Bush is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Review by Christine Newton Bush

By: National Geographic Maps for The Book Division Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society

448 pages; 145 plates; 300+ maps; 250+ graphs and charts; 75 color photographs

$195.00 (Initial offering: $169.95); $132.40 on Amazon Hardcover (deluxe)


The National Geographic Atlas of the World (Deluxe 10th Edition) (henceforth, “the Atlas” or “this Atlas”) is a large format (12 1/8″ x 18 1/4″) tome that includes a colorful hard shell slipcase with full color graphics and a collectible double-sided insert (41.5” x 29.75”) featuring a map of “today’s physical world” on one side and “the first world map published as a supplement to National Geographic magazine in 1922” on the other. i The product as a whole weighs 10.6 pounds. (See Figure A.)

This Atlas is organized similarly to its predecessor (9th edition, 2010), with four sections: World Themes (Plates 5-25); Maps (Plates 26-142) organized by continent, with additional sections for “The Poles,” “Oceans,” “Space,” and “Nations”; a short Appendix (Plates 143-145) for “Geographic Comparisons,” “Time Zones,” and “Foreign Terms, Abbreviations, and Metric Conversion Tables”; and an extensive Index (pages 1-148). Each plate is a two-page spread.

The inside front and back covers feature a “Key To Atlas Maps” with related symbology ii that provides a way to quickly identify the plate you need. These are indicated by the outlines of overlapping map extents with page numbers indicated in the corner of each area. (See Figure B.)

As with previous editions, much of the current research in this Atlas is presented in the initial section of twenty World Themes. Each World Theme plate features a world map in Winkel-Tripel Projection displaying geospatial data corresponding to its theme. Each of these World Themes is introduced by several paragraphs of contextual prose followed by sub-sections that break the theme into specific areas of analysis. Colorful, modern infographics are liberally used to present findings or to provide keys to inset maps. (See Figure C.) Fourteen of these themes focus on humans and our activities, which sets a strong anthropocentric tone for this Atlas.

The cartographic centerpiece of this Atlas is, of course, the collection of eighty-eight physical and political maps. They are cross-referenced in “an expanded place-name index with more than 150,00 entries, with separate undersea, Moon, and Mars features.” iii From the perspective of cartographic design, the maps of this Atlas are outstanding and remind us that certain projections present different regions of the globe to best effect. For purposes of selecting a projection, this Atlas is an authoritative reference. iv

Following the Index of place names and a section for “Flags and Facts,” the “Acknowledgments” deserve special attention by cartographers. Here you will find the data and online sources for key plates, including each of the World Themes. This information provides a wealth of contacts and resources for use in your own cartography, research, or teaching. v

As one might expect from a long-standing, influential institution such as the National Geographic Society (NGS), the objectives for this landmark volume are grand. National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek, making the epoch journey entailed by the society’s Out of Eden Walk project, penned the book’s Foreward while following the trail blazed by our ancient ancestors. vi Salopek describes this Atlas as “a profound traveler’s conversation” that “locates us not just in space, but also in our time. And like the best of map collections, its plates don’t simply just display the shape of the world as it stands, but as it could be—with all its promise and peril.” On Plate 2 – “How to Use this Atlas,” the editors describe their work as “a useful reference tool, this Atlas is also a guide for dreaming. Its lines, colors, and patterns evoke images of exotic places, of visits made, and trips anticipated.”

I will first focus on new or revised cartographic plates in this Atlas in hopes that a sampling may serve to represent the whole. I will then turn offer a collection of critiques.

World Themes

When comparing the “World Themes” research section of the 10th edition to its corresponding predecessor (the “Thematic World” research section of the 9th edition) one finds the editors have simply shuffled the deck a bit. Three of the plates were given new names, but focus on the same area of research: “Population Trends” morphed into “Human Influences”; “Impact of Cities” was changed to “City Dominance”; and “Communication” was updated to “Interconnectivity. Much of the content in these sections has been revised (or replaced) but there are no entirely new areas of research presented in this Atlas.

Plate 9 – “Climate: Shifting Winds and Weather.”

Sea ice in the Arctic is shrinking faster than models predicted, the result of a climatic feedback loop powered by the increase in absorbed solar radiation resulting from the loss of ice. (See Figure D.) Sea levels are rising, however, not only as a result of melting polar sea ice, but also from melting polar and glacial sheet ice releasing fresh water that was being stored on land into oceans. In the era of satellite measurement of sea-level change, we have witnessed an increase in sea level from just over 150mm in the mid 1990s to ~225mm in 2013. (See Figure E.)

Plate 11 – “Biodiversity: Life, Protected and Otherwise.”

Acknowledging that “scientists believe that Earth in the midst of its sixth extinction crisis, with thousands of species vanishing each year,” this plate commences with a chart showing the growth of seven different types of “nationally designated protected areas. During the period from 1950 to 2010, the most dramatic growth is found in National parks and Protected areas with sustainable use. Cumulatively, all these different types of protections are adding up. Their combined area has more than doubled from roughly 6 million square kilometers in 1950 to over 15 million in 2010.

Plates 15, 16 – “City Dominance: Cities Rule the World” and “City Characteristics: A Diverse Urban Landscape.”

In 2008 humanity for the first became “majority urban,” with more of us living in cities than not. Plates 15 looks more closely at this milestone and explains that while the largest population centers, the “megacities” with 10 million or more residents, “seem to define our age” they are not representative of city life for most urban dwellers: “Only a quarter of the urban population lives in cities with more than five million residents, and rapid growth is mostly found in cities of fewer than 500,000. More than half of all city dwellers—a quarter of humanity—call these smaller cities home.”

Plate 16 states: “a fresh future is taking shape, with urban areas around the world becoming not just the dominant form of habitat for humankind, but also the engine rooms of human development as a whole.” vii Given this historic shift in human habitation and multiple World Theme plates in this and the previous edition being presented on the significant role of cities, one wonders why this Atlas does not include any maps of megacities and major metropolitan areas. viii

Plate 18 – “Cultures: A Developing Global Culture”

This World Theme asks an audacious question:

“What is culture, exactly? Various disciplines have their own definitions, but almost all converge on a few basic factors, including the customs of food, artistic expression, and clothing, which have a physical aspect or leave behind physical objects that can be studied and tracked over time. But two of the more conceptual aspects of culture—the words group members use to speak with one another and the religious beliefs they hold in common—are particularly valuable for understanding the barriers and connections between groups.”

I applaud NGS for highlighting the extinction of languages around the world on Plate 18. This concern is generally considered the domain of cultural anthropologists, but the infographic quantifies the magnitude of the cultural loss: 80% of the world’s people currently speak 1% of the world’s languages.

New Maps

Updated cartography in this edition includes “new political plates of Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, and Australia” as well as “expanded coverage of Africa, more details on the Mariana Trench, plus a new close-up view of the strategic Mediterranean Basin.” ix Let’s take a look at these new maps in more detail.

Plate 61 – “England and Wales (Cymru).” x

This plate is new to this edition, but is quite similar to Plate 60 – “British Isles” (presented at a scale of 1:1,932,000) while this new plate is displayed at a scale of 1:1,136,000. Both plates use Polyconic Projection.

Plate 62 – “Ireland (Éire)” on left side of plate, “Scotland” on right side of plate.

This plate is new to this edition and each of these maps is presented at a scale of 1:1,136,00 in Polyconic Projection. It presents Scotland in its entirety including the Orkney Islands and Fair Isle to the north, and the Inner and Outer Hebrides to the west. The map also includes an inset of the Shetland Islands (Zetland) in the upper left.

Plate 96 – “Mediterranean Region.”

This new plate fills a gap found in the 9th edition and is grouped with the African maps. It presents the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, Turkey, the Levant and most of northern Africa in their entirety at a scale of 1:8,000,000 in Azimuthal Equidistant Projection. It also includes much of the Red Sea and portions of Saudi Arabia and Iraq to the east. This is a useful reference with regard to increasingly desperate migration attempts from northern Africa toward Europe. (See Figure F.)

Plate 98 – “Northeastern Africa.”

This plate has been updated to show the new country of South Sudan at a scale of 1:8,525,000. (See Figure G.) One can also see most of South Sudan at a larger scale on the next page, Plate 99 – “Horn of Africa,” where all but the westernmost part of the country is displayed at a scale of 1:5,750,000. Both plates use Transverse Mercator Projection.

Plate 101 – “South Africa.”

This is new plate that shows South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland in their entirety with much of Namibia (including all of the Namib Desert) and Botswana to the north as well as portions of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. This plate is displayed at a scale larger than many maps in this Atlas, 1:3,500,000 using Transverse Mercator Projection. At this scale all of the region’s primary towns and cities are well spaced and easily located.

Plate 103 – “Physical Map of Australia.”

This plate has been updated for presentation at a scale of 1:8,575,000 in Azimuthal Equidistant Projection with the improvement of showing Tasmania in situ rather than as an inset map. The 9th edition of the Atlas presented this plate at a scale 1:7,375,000.

Plate 104 – “Australia.”

This political map of Australia has no changes in scale from its counterpart in the 9th edition of the Atlas, but also now presents Tasmania in situ. It still features inset maps for Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, but they now appear in the upper left of the plate instead of lower left with a corresponding change in placement for the plate’s legend. This places the insets in more accurate relative positions to the northwest of the Australian continent, but leaves room for improvement in a future edition when perhaps the Atlas will also show them in correct relative position to one another. xi

Plates 105-107 – “West Australia,” “Northeastern Australia,” and “Southeastern Australia.”

These plates are new to this edition and presented at a scale of 1:5,100,000 in Azimuthal Equidistant Projection.

“West Australia” displays all of the Western Australia and portions of Northern Territory and South Australia. xii More details of various nature reserves, the western coast, and Melville Island are revealed.

“Northeastern Australia” presents Northern Territory and Queensland in their entirety and portions of Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales. Also indicated are major coral formations of the troubled Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and other major coral formations to the east and northeast of the park.

“Southeastern Australia” presents South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania in their entirety as well as portions of Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland.

Plates 112-113 – “Arctic Ocean” and “Antarctica.”

Cartographers should know that Earth has geographic poles located at the convergence of zero degrees latitude and longitude, as well as magnetic poles to which magnetic compasses point that move “a few kilometers a year as the Earth’s magnetic field changes” (pl. 113). But Earth also has geomagnetic poles, which this Atlas, like its predecessors, explains are “distinct from the more familiar geographic and magnetic poles” and “mark the axis of the Earth’s magnetic field” (p. 113). In 2014, Earth’s South Geomagnetic Pole was located in East Antarctica near -108° longitude, -80.5° latitude. Earth’s North Geomagnetic Pole is a little tricky to find on Plate 112, located near Ellesmere Island at 72° longitude, 80° latitude.

Plate 115 – “Pacific Ocean Floor.”

This plate’s cartography has not changed dramatically, but its sidebar text has been updated from previous editions to include acknowledgment of James Cameron’s historic solo descent into the 11-kilometer deep eastern depression of the Mariana Trench. On March 23, 2013, Cameron piloted the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER to a depth of 10,908 meters, just 4 meters shy of the 1960 descent by the U.S. Navy’s Picard and Walsh. The latest measurements of the “Challenger Deep” indicate a depth of 10,920 meters, which places Cameron’s descent to less than 100 feet from the seabed of Earth’s deepest, darkest location. xiii


After the Atlas maps is the section on “Nations” which consists primarily of a compendium of “Flags and Facts.” xiv (Can you name the nation whose flag takes the form of a double pennant? xv) Going to the effort and cost of putting this ephemeral, aggregated demographic information on paper is an extravagant tradition, but one which is perhaps educationally justified if continuing reports of American geographic ignorance have any veracity.


Index criteria are fuzzy.In the section “Using the Index” the editors explain, “A name may appear on several maps, but the index lists on the best presentation.” This begs the question of what constitutes the “best presentation.” This criterion suggests a rather low bar has been set, namely, that the best presentation is when a country is shown in its entirety.

In the case of Belarus, (Ukraine, Czech Republic, and others(?)), however, this best presentation counter-intuitively entails display at a substantially smaller scale.   What we can see of Belarus, for example, on Plate 70 of “Central Europe” is displayed at a scale of 1:2,252,000 whereas the index references Plate 73 of “European Russia” on which Belarus is seen at a scale of 1:6,625,000 or almost two-thirds smaller with the added disappointment of a page gutter running across the extent of the country from west to east. (Kazakhstan fares better, with its best presentation in fact being at a scale somewhat larger than its appearance a few pages earlier.)

Contested ocean count? A caption over Antarctica on the first cartographic plate of the Atlas (plate 3, showing the “Physical World”) asks: “A FIFTH OCEAN? The Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans merge into icy waters around Antarctica. Some define this as an ocean—calling it the Antarctic Ocean, Austral Ocean, or Southern Ocean. While most accept four oceans, including the Arctic, there is no international agreement on the name and extent of a fifth ocean.” As anyone who has spent time with a globe, however, has observed: this convergence covers almost half of our planet. Numerous scientifically based documentaries make reference to the Southern Ocean. Why doesn’t this Atlas do so? It does in an oblique way. It includes a section of five plates showing “Oceans” and provides seafloor charts for: Plate 115 “Pacific Ocean Floor,” Plate 116 “Atlantic Ocean Floor,” Plate 117 “Indian Ocean Floor,” Plate 118″Arctic Ocean Floor,” and Plate 119 “Ocean Floor Around Antarctica.”

Problematic scale indication on Plate 118. All of the plates found in the sections on “The Poles” and “Oceans” are presented using an Azimuthal Equidistant projection. The legends for Plate 115 “Pacific Ocean Floor,” Plate 116 “Atlantic Ocean Floor,” and Plate 117 “Indian Ocean Floor” each qualify their scales with the words “at the Equator” and this is appropriate because the equator is present on each of these charts for reference. The words “at the Equator” are not present after the scale on Plate 119 “Ocean Floor Around Antarctica,” nor are they present Plate 112 “Arctic Ocean” or Plate 113 “Antarctica” from the previous section entitled “The Poles.” (See Figure H.) And this, too, seems appropriate because the Equator is not included within the extent of any of these plates. So there is an expectation that the words “at the Equator” are appended to the scale of a plate only when the Equator is present within the extent of a plate.

However, on Plate 118 “Arctic Ocean Floor” presents an unexpected exception to the rule. Here the legend displays a scale of 1:11,000,000 “at the Equator” for a plate on which the Equator is not present. This seems to present an exception to the established expectation on a plate presented at a scale comparable to its counterpart, Plate 112 “Arctic Ocean,” which is also presented in Azimuthal Equidistant projection at a scale of 1:10,100,000 but without the words “at the Equator” appended.  Is this an editorial faux pas? (See Figure I.)

Limited coverage of conservation issues. In the “Foreward” to this Atlas by Out of Eden Project National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek poignantly writes:

“Plodding north through Saudi Arabia, I realized I had never walked through deserts so quiet. For seven months, I did not see a single wild gazelle, ibex, or wolf. (I did see a dead wolf strung up in a tree.) Hunters perambulated the sands in SUVs, shooting the few remaining birds from open car windows. A global mass extinction of tens of thousands of species, the sixth in geological history, and the first triggered entirely by a single organism—us—is well underway. Waking up to this deepening biological silence, we humans have begun to scramble, to set aside 15 percent of the continents as nature reserves and pioneer new sea parks. But is it too little, too late?”

This is perhaps the most profound observation made in the entire Atlas, yet there is only this one plate dedicated to the theme of “Biodiversity” on which information relating to this global mass extinction is presented.

Numeric geospatial coordinates for major features continue to be absent in this Atlas. It remains largely a geographical reference, not a geospatial reference. If you need to know the actual coordinates of a location, you must derive them from the projection grid. How long can a geographical reference without data (vs. chunks of textual information) remain relevant, or even cost effective? These questions point to a deeper issue: why is this Atlas not available as a digital product?

Confusion re: commemorative nature of this Atlas. The sales blurb on the National Geographic web site store says this edition is: “Celebrating 100 years of award-winning National Geographic cartography.” The double-sided map included with the deluxe edition has a new map (Copyright 2015) entitled: “Commemorating the 125th Anniversary of The National Geographic Society” which would presumably place the organization’s anniversary in 1890. xvi The older map on the double-sided include is entitled: “The first general reference map of the world produced by the National Geographic Society’s Map Department, Published December 1922.” Regardless of which map you take as the commemorative, the store copy is off the mark. No mention of any anniversary is made in the Atlas itself.

American exceptionalism: Why go to the trouble of presenting regions selected for presentation in the least distorted projection if the Atlas as a whole isn’t going to present all geographic areas with proportionate coverage? Thirteen plate coverage of the United States, a single country, but only 6 plates for the whole of South America? Only 8 plates for the whole of Africa?

If the justification for these decisions is political influence or population factors, then the work’s title should reflect this: Atlas of the World’s Geopolitical & Demographic Power Centers.


This Atlas remains a good value and meets very high expectations, but not without leaving room for improvement. Future printed editions should be printed on paper large enough to display an entire map at the desired scale thereby eliminating page gutters. xvii The Index—if not the entire Atlas—should be available as a fully searchable digital product. Covering every part of the world can be done more equitably. Future editions should break through the self-imposed geographic scope and present maps of megacities and major metropolitan areas. And the Atlas needs to increase coverage of the whole biosphere by including more plates that focus on flora and fauna.

I value this addition to my research shelf, but the format of the book itself is nonetheless a major flaw. Put plainly: having page gutters running down the center of every plate is disruptive. World-class cartography deserves to be printed on paper larger enough to contain the entire map at the desired scale.

As I researched this Atlas one of the main things I began to appreciate is that its long-term role is largely historical, not geographical. It is meaningful, for example, to look at the 1922 Map of the World (included as an insert with the deluxe edition of this Atlas) to find a large region in the Arctic labeled “Unexplored Region.” This historical function also reveals one of its greatest weaknesses, which is that it fails to effectively explain or illustrate within the context of individual editions what has changed since the previous one.

I agree with others that this Atlas generally errs in the use of fonts that are just too small to easily scan. And in some cases, text is overprinted in such as way as to be difficult to read at all.

The magnitude of the Index entails 148 pages which accounts for 52% of the total Atlas. How long can this feature of a printed edition be justifiably sustained?

List of Illustrations with Captions

Figure A. The National Geographic Atlas of the World (Deluxe Tenth Edition). Shown are the colorful slipcase and the Atlas against a backdrop of the 1922 insert map included with this product. (Composite image of product elements by C. Bush 2015, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)


Figure B. Inside back cover showing “Key to the Atlas Maps” reveals the shape and extent of the maps found within—a map of the Atlas itself. (Photo by C. Bush 2015, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)


Figure C. Detail of Plate 24 – “Economy: Straining Financial Links” showing Gross domestic product composition by sector of origin. This Atlas makes use of triangular scatter plots on several plates in the World Themes section. This one is less confusing than others and is based on data from The World Factbook by the CIA and from the Population Reference Bureau. (Photo by C. Bush 2015, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)


Figure D. Detail of Plate 9 – “Climate: Shifting Winds and Weather” showing Shrinking Polar Ice. This distinctive illustration features a modified polar orthographic illustration with extruded Greenland land mass based on data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (2013). (Photo by C. Bush 2015, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)


Figure E. Detail of Plate 9 – “Climate: Shifting Winds and Weather” showing Charting Sea-level Change based on data by John A. Church and Neil J. White (2011). (Photo by C. Bush 2015, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)


Figure F. Detail of Plate 96 – “Mediterranean Region.” (Photo by C. Bush 2015, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)


Figure G. Detail of Plate 98 – “Northeastern Africa” presenting the new country of South Sudan. (Photo by C. Bush 2015, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)


Figure H. Detail of Plate 119 – “Ocean Floor Around Antarctica” does not indicate a scale “at the Equator.” (Photo by C. Bush 2015, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

Detail of Plate 119.

Figure I. Detail of Plate 118 – “Arctic Ocean Floor problematically does indicate a scale “at the Equator.” (Photo by C. Bush 2015, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

Detail of Plate 118.

End Notes

[i] http://shop.nationalgeographic.com accessed on 2015/01/27.

[ii] As in the previous edition of this Atlas, the sidebar showing “Political Map Symbols” on the inside front and back covers lists symbologies grouped as “Boundaries,” “Transportation,” “Water Features,” “Physical Features,” and “Cultural Features.” The first two items in the Cultural Features group are icons for “Oil field” and “Oil pipeline.” It is thought provoking whether these corporate industrial assets actually constitute cultural features. They do not strike me as being congruent with the concept of culture offered on Plate 18 – “Cultures” which presents culture in terms of standard anthropological concepts such as language and religion.

[iii] http://shop.nationalgeographic.com accessed on 2015/01/27.

[iv] Absent a centralized listing of projections used in this Atlas, I have created one. See http://ideaspeak.us/ngs-atlas-10th-supplementary/#projections

[v] For a digital listing of these and other resources: http://ideaspeak.us/ngs-atlas-10th-supplementary/.

[vi] For more information, visit: http://OutOfEdenWalk.NationalGeographic.com.

[vii] Ironically, the “engine rooms” of Silicon Valley are not easily explored in this Atlas because they fall in the page gutter that runs through plate 37, the map of the “Southwestern United States” which shows California and Nevada.

[viii] Vatican City and Monte Carlo constitute two ironic exceptions, as they are included on Plate 64 in a callout section labeled “Europe’s Smallest Countries.”

[ix] http://shop.nationalgeographic.com accessed on 2015/01/27.

[x] This parenthetical label did not appear in the previous edition of this Atlas. “Cymru” is the Welsh word for Wales. For pronunciation, see: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cymru?s=t.

[xi] Christmas Island is west of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, but the inset maps (as in the 9th edition) present Christmas Island on the left and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands on the right, reversed from their actual disposition to one another.

[xii] The naming conventions at work here are subtle. Titles of maps seem to deliberately delineate themselves from, rather than correspond to, the areas or territories displayed. Hence, Plate 105 is entitled “West Australia” but features the administrative region of Western Australia. Plate 107 is entitled “Southeastern Australia” but displays South Australia (as well as other administrative regions.) The rationale for the map names is likely in response to inconsistent application of cardinal direction modifiers historically applied to administrative regions of the continent, rather than being inconsistent.

[xiii] These recent measurements have “the lowest level of vertical uncertainty (+10 meters [+33 feet]) of all current surveys.”

[xiv] Looking for the key to the information for this section? It’s the next to last page of the book, p. 152.

[xv] Answer: Nepal.

[xvi] According the NGS web site: “The National Geographic Society has been inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888.” (http://www.nationalgeographic.com/about/ accessed on 2015/01/27.) The newer map does include two small inset world maps showing “The World in 1888” and “The World in 1988.”

[xvii] An example of this disruption can be found on Plate 62 which is actually a divided plate featuring “Ireland (Éire)” on left side of plate, “Scotland” on right side of plate but with the same plate number on both maps. A casual researcher (the likely market this Atlas) could easily misread this plate as a single map if they failed to notice the lines of latitude not running congruently across the gutter.

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