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Constructing a Topographic Profile

One of the important tools you can use to extract the vertical information from a
topographic map, and see more clearly the shape of the earth's surface that it
represents is a topographic profile.
Construction of a topographic profile allows you to visualize the vertical
component of a landscape. A topographic profile is similar to the view you have
of a landscape while standing on earth, looking at hills and valleys from the side
rather than from above.
Given a topographic map such as the one below, here's how to construct a
topographic profile.

Determine the line of profile, the line across that part of the map that you want
to see in profile or cross-section view. Depending on which part of the map you
want to see in profile, you can draw your line of profile in any direction you
choose, across any part of the map you choose. For the map used in this
example, we choose to draw the profile from A to A' as shown in the diagram
below, to see the entire length of the hill in profile.
1. Draw a grid that will contain the profile. The width of the grid should be
the same as the length of the line of profile. To draw the profile, the grid
must be crossed by evenly-spaced horizontal lines that represent the
contour elevations. The grid must extend high enough to span the
elevation range of the contour lines spanned by the line of profile. You
can see that the grid, shown below, includes the range of elevations that
the line of profile crosses on the map. In addition, the grid must have an
extra horizontal line at the bottom and top to accomodate the parts of the
profile that go above the highest contour elevation and below the lowest
contour elevation. That is why the grid in the example below goes below
400 feet and above 500 feet in elevation.

3. Transfer the contour elevations from the topographic map to the profile
grid. The point where each contour line crosses the line of profile on the
topographic map determines the horizontal coordinate of each
corresponding point on the grid of the topographic profile. The elevation
of each contour line corresponds to the vertical coordinate of each
corresponding point on the profile grid, as shown on the diagram below.

4. Now that you have marked the elevation points on the profile grid, draw a
smooth line connecting the data points as shown below. Note that the
ends of this profile go below the 400 foot contour elevation but they do
not extend to the 380 foot elevation because on the map the line of
profile did not reach the 380 foot contour line. Also note that the top of
the profile reaches a peak above 520 feet but less than 540 feet because
the line of profile does not cross the 540 foot contour line.

The completed topographic profile and the map it was drawn from are shown
below. Topographic profiles are usually constructed without drawing any lines on
the map. Instead, the edge of a piece of paper is laid along the line of profile and
the contour line data is transferred to the edge of the piece of paper. From the
edge of the piece of paper, the data are transfered to the profile grid, which is on
a separate piece of paper.

Notice on the topographic profile constructed above that the peak of the hill is
above 520 ft, but below 540 ft. Similarly, the ends of the profile are below 400 ft
but above 380. This is consistent with the elevations of those parts of the line of
profile on the map. Note that the vertical scale on the profile is very different
from the horizontal scale on the map. In this example, the map covers 0.25
miles horizontally in less distance than the profile covers 100 feet vertically. As
a result, the topographic profile is greatly exaggerated vertically. In an actual
view of the hill, looking at it from the side, it would not look nearly as steep as it
does in the topographic profile that we have constructed.
If the vertical scale on a topopgraphic profile is different from the map scale, as
it is in this case, then the profile will exhibit a vertical exaggeration. The vertical
exaggeration of a topogrpahic profile can be calculated. It is the fractional scale
of the topographic profile's vertical axis, divided by the fractional scale of the
map. For example, if the vertical scale on the profile is 1:200 and the map scale
is 1:24,000, the vertical exaggeration is (1/200)/(1/24000). To divide by a
fraction, you can invert and multiply, so this becomes (1/200)x(24,000/1) =
24,000/200 = 120. A topographic profile with a VE of 120 would be a very
exaggerated topographic profile. It would be as if a rubber model of the
landscape has been pulled in the vertical direction, until it is 120 times taller
than it really is.
If the vertical scale of a topographic profile is different from the map scale, the
vertical exaggeration should be listed next to the profile, such as VE=10 or VE
10x if the vertical exaggeration is 10.
Compare the profile to the topographic map. You will see that the hill is steeper
on the west (left) side than on the east (right) side. This is consistent with the
contour lines being spaced more closely on the west side of the hill and farther
apart on the east side of the hill. This accords with the rules of contour lines,
which state that slopes are steeper where contour lines are more closely
spaced, and slopes are less steep where contour lines are more widely spaced.
If you drew a profile from north to south across the peak of the hill, do you think
the profile would be symmetric or asymmetric?
Checklist for a Complete Topographic Profile:
1. The topographic profile is drawn on a rectilinear graph with evenly spaced
grid lines. (Vertical grid lines are not required.)
2. Elevation lines are labeled along the left-hand vertical axis.
3. The profile is a smooth curve where its gradient changes, rather than
straight-line segments connecting the dots and only bending at the dots.
4. If the vertical scale on the profile is different from the map scale, the
resulting amount of vertical exaggeration is listed.
5. The ends and any high points or low points of the topographic profile should
be above or below elevation lines, not on them, except in cases where an
end, high point, or low point of a line of profile happens to fall right on a
contour line.