Mapping Our Burning Future: Cartography and Climate Change

By Ellie Church, GLOBUS Correspondent

With the oldest map known to us being dated to around 700BC, maps have certainly held their place in our society. Previously relied on for navigation, facilitating voyages and discoveries, it is a shame that technological advances are now pushing our obvious relationship with cartography to the back alleys. The fact we quite literally have the whole world in our hands (and to our disposal) is often overlooked or taken for granted, leading to suggestions that our over-reliance on GPS is decreasing our navigational abilities (Thompson, 2017). Yet, the art of cartography remains critical as we try to capture our rapidly changing environment. Harnessing the power of maps can not only help us facilitate sustainable development, but also assist us in visually communicating the stark effects of climate change; past present and future. And, as we begin a critical year in mobilising climate action, what could be more important than that? 


Maps are classically considered ‘still’ in a world that is always in movement. By the time a map is drawn, it may well be out-dated. Political changes (e.g. country names and borders) are often confirmed by authority figures. However, natural changes are harder to solidify. This further intensifies when scale is considered. These natural changes are geologically scaled, meaning they are very hard for maps to capture. To overcome these challenges, cartographers might start to incorporate ‘buffer zones’ around natural features, to allow for fluctuation, or ‘fuzzy’ boundaries to allow for movement without the map being withdrawn (S & S Editorial, 2012). The adaptation and adaptability of maps must remain a constant in a field overcome by change.  


A world map coloured with red and blue tones has almost become synonymous with climate change, with impacts including, but not limited to, sea level and surface temperature increases. Cartography, here, is proving a powerful narrative tool to explore and communicate scientific data and findings. The visual stimulus of maps can evoke both emotion and understanding universally, in a way that raw data or even pictures might not. These scientific maps are used regularly by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in reports and press releases; an example is pictured below. Maps used in this sense tend to be global, encompassing the idea that all of humanity is at risk. The shock tactics of maps such as these may be vital in mobilising climate action as “images are blueprints to imagine and shape reality.” (Schneider, 2016) 

Source: IPCC, AR5, Working Group 1 Figure SPM.1b 


Often seen as a highly skilled and technical field, cartography is starting to become a much more collaborative effort. In a bid to keep up with change, organisations in cartography are working with digital technology to transform “what maps can look like, how they can be used, and who can make them” (Oliver, 2017). For example, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (commonly referred to as HOT), works with locals and remote mappers to keep track of the potential impacts of natural disasters. By keeping a digital map consistently updated, emergency response can be quicker and more accurate. Already seeing an increase in demand for this type of mapping, we can expect the technology to further advance to keep up with the perils of climate change, and to bring people together in times of need. 

As we continue to witness impacts of climate change all around the world, the importance of cartography has never been more vital to our survival. Not only can we use digital mapping to visualise data in real time, but also static maps to create connections with past and future generations.  

In this battle to protect our future, maps should not be overlooked as a crucial weapon. 

Header Image: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


Oliver, L. (2017). How Climate Change Affects Cartography. [online] Atlas Obscura. Available at: [Accessed 31 Dec. 2019]. 

S & S Editorial. (2012). Climate Cartography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 31 Dec. 2019]. 

Schneider, B. (2016) Burning worlds of cartography: a critical approach to climate cosmograms of the Anthropocene. Geo: Geography and Environment, 3: 2, e00027, doi: 10.1002/geo2.27. 

Thompson, C. (2017). From Ptolemy to GPS, the Brief History of Maps. [online] Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: [Accessed 31 Dec. 2019]. 

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