Views from above;Subject of the week;Reference books

30th April 1999 at 01:00
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SATELLITE ATLAS OF THE WORLD. National Geographic pound;35.

THE GREAT WORLD ATLAS. Bramley Books pound;29.99.

ORDNANCE SURVEY GAZETTEER OF GREAT BRITAIN. Ordnance Survey and Macmillan Reference pound;99.

The two atlases have little in common, other than the fact that neither conforms to the conventional notion of an atlas - that is, a comprehensive collection of maps.

The Satellite Atlas is a handsome, coffee-table volume, with very few maps but a spectacular array of satellite images. An introduction succinctly covers the history and technology of image-acquiring in space. There are telling reminders of the Cold War context (Soviet image of the Capitol, American image of the Kremlin) and the plethora of orbiting objects - "space junk" - now totalling some 10,000 items.

A pair of physical and political maps opens each continental sequence of images. Selected land forms and types of environment are illustrated, with an emphasis on the spectacular and the catastrophic: eruptions, hurricanes, bush fires. Many images highlight issues, such as the pollution of the Great Lakes, the shrinking of the Aral Sea. There are striking examples of land-use patterns changing abruptly at national park and international boundaries. Extreme scale variations, from a sequence showing the expansion of Changi airport in Singapore, to a single shot of the entire Amazon basin, demonstrate the amazing repertoire of satellite imaging, but might usefully have been complemented by some indication of the distances represented.

Captions combine the technical ("Worldsat merged TM imagery.... and SPOT pan chromatic imagery.... then draped the result over a digital elevation model") with the familiar National Geographic purple prose ("White whirl of death swirling in the Western Atlantic, infamous Fran bears down upon the Florida peninsula").

This is, arguably, not really an atlas. There is no comprehensive coverage, and the superb, label-free photographs vastly outnumber the maps. The index has fewer than a thousand entries, and many of these refer to the technology, not to locations. It is, however, a wonderfully comprehensive introduction to what satellite imagery can achieve; it would make a splendid gift for a student or teacher of geography.

The Great World Atlas does provide global coverage, but the map sequence occupies less than half the pages. Like most modern atlases, this one has multi-functional aspirations. We start with 34 pages on global themes - land use, population, health, and so on - employing a range of graphical devices of variable effectiveness and providing undated data. The global scale leads to graphical and verbal generalisation; China, for instance, appears internally undifferentiated on the population map, and the entire southern hemisphere is characterised as agriculturally labour-intensive.

This section is followed by 42 pages of encyclopedic text, with a flag-embellished paragraph per country. Then come 41 pages of satellite images, with a rhapsodically diffident commentary - "all countries are a medley of beauty and spirituality that has to be experienced, and cannot be captured on film".

At last, we arrive at the maps, which are rather disappointing. By using more than half of the book for data, text and pictures, map coverage, and scales, are considerably restricted. Russia and China get just a single map each, at 1:11.5m, and even a more generously treated Europe (14 maps) has nothing larger than l:1m.

Colour is reserved for land use, with relief faintly modelled beneath. This is not very effective, in either cognitive or aesthetic terms. Relief is obscured, and no mountain or moor land is indicated on most of the maps showing Britain. Colour shades are very close together; desert, Mediterranean scrub and "prairie" are not easily distinguishable. The atlas uses no fewer than 10 different projections, but no space is found for any account of this important topic, although it is mentioned in an elegant introductory essay by Professor William Mead. He also refers to latitude and longitude; not employed here, or used in the 34,000-item index. In a competitive field, publications combining reference text, global data source, satellite photography and atlas maps must risk coming a poor second to more specialised books in all these categories.

The Ordnance Survey Gazetteer's fourth edition now has 258,000 entries. It lists every name which occurs on the current 1:50,000 series of British OS maps. For each item, its local government unit, its National Grid reference, latitude and longitude, category (farm, antiquity, village, etc) and Landranger sheet number is provided. Invaluable for libraries, major map shops and any institution holding the complete 204-sheet Landranger series, it will enable users to select swiftly the sheet they need and locate a point without having to pore over the sheet.

Michael Storm is a geography consultant

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