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Using topographic maps

Topographic maps (or contour maps) show the type of terrain in an area and aid property planning. A topographic map represents a three-dimensional landscape on a flat surface as shown in Figure 1. Contour lines represent points on the map that are the same height above or below a known reference point (normally sea level). Topographic maps can help locate catchment boundaries and drainage lines. They are useful for planning the locations of fences, access tracks, watering points, buildings and yards. Land slopes can be measured from a topographic map and provide useful data for the design of erosion control measures, dams, pipelines and irrigation schemes.

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Where to get topographic information

Topographic maps are available from the Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) in the following scales: 1:2 500, 1:5 000, 1:10 000, 1:25 000, 1:31 680, 1:50 000, 1:100 000, 1:250 000 and 1:1 000 000. For information on the coverage of these topographic maps, visit the DERM website <> (search topographic maps). The small-scale maps (1:100 000 and greater) are available for all of Queensland, while the larger scale maps are generally only available in more closely settled areas. Topographic image maps (orthophoto maps) can also be purchased for some areas. They have contour lines over a photographic background with an accurate scale of 1:25 000. Topographic data is also available digitally. For detailed property planning a scale of 1:10 000 or larger is usually required. If this scale is not available then a property can be surveyed to provide topographic information at the required scale. Crude measures such as using a hose as a level can provide useful data for small areas. Some firms specialise in providing accurate topographic information using Geographic Positioning System (GPS) equipment. They can also map features such as fences, tracks and contour banks. Useful topographic information can also be obtained by viewing a pair of adjacent aerial photographs through a stereoscopeto identify ridgelines, depressions and runoff flow patterns.

Figure 1. An exploded view of a hill and its representation on a map

Interpreting topographic maps

Figure 2 provides an example of a topographic map with contour lines at 20-metre intervals. The following features can be identified.

Slope direction
Slope direction can be determined by reading the heights marked on the contour lines. A slope is going uphill if the number values increase as you read them on the map. On many topographic maps, if you turn the map to read the numbers square on, then you are looking uphill.

A catchment is a landscape feature that collects runoff from rainfall. The runoff drains to the lowest point in the catchment. It may be as large as the Murray-Darling Basin or as small as the area contributing to a puddle. In Figure 2, the shaded area is a catchment, with point 'A' the highest point and point 'Z' the lowest. The arrows indicate the direction of water flow in the catchment. Note that water flow is perpendicular to the contour lines.

Ridge lines
Catchments are usually defined by ridges. They can be shown on maps as a dashed line, e.g. AB and AC in Figure 2. Note that the contour lines change direction on ridges and that run-off flows away from ridges towards the drainage line. The easiest route up a mountain is often along a ridge as this is where some of the lowest slopes in the landscape occur.

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Figure 2. A topographic map with a catchment area highlighted.

Ridge lines are also good locations for tracks because of the lower slopes and less risk of erosion.

Drainage lines
Run-off accumulates in drainage lines, which then flow into creeks and rivers. Drainage lines are well defined in steeper country and are indicated by a sharp change in direction of the contour lines e.g. points X and Y in Figure 2. On flood plains, drainage lines are less well defined and the contour lines flatten out. Run-off flows across the whole of the floodplain rather than in a well-defined channel. A narrow floodplain is shown on the western side of the creek in Figure 2.

In Figure 2, the height difference between X and Y is 20 metres (480 m460 m) and the horizontal distance is 1000 metres. The average slope between X and Y would be calculated as follows: Average slope (%) = 20/1000 X 100 = 2 percent

Further information
Further information on topographic maps is available from a departmental business centre or the DERM website <>. Fact sheet L70A guide to property mapping. August 2009 L75 For further information phone 13 13 04

Measuring slope on a map

Contour lines that are close together indicate steep slopes which are usually found in the highest part of the catchment. As the land flattens out the contour lines are further apart. Figure 2 illustrates how slopes can vary within a catchment. Note that the lowest slopes occur along the drainage lines and ridge lines. The steepest slopes occur midway between these points. Slopes are a ratio between height and distance. If the land height rises a vertical distance of one metre over a horizontal distance of 100 metres then the slope will be a ratio of 1:100, which can also be expressed as one per cent. The average slope between two points on a topographic map can be found using this equation: Average slope (%) = H/D X 100 H = vertical height difference between points D = horizontal distance between two points.