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Reading Topographic Maps

Reading Topographic Maps

This site is an excerpt from Appendix E of the Method for the Comparative Evaluation of Nontidal Wetlands in New Hampshire, 1991. Alan Ammann, PhD and Amanda Lindley Stone. This document and method is commonly called �The New Hampshire Method.� 

This site and How to Delineate a Watershed are available together for download. This document requires Adobe Acrobat.

Adobe Acrobat document How to Read a Topographic Map and Delineate a Watershed (300 Kb)

In order to successfully delineate a watershed boundary, the evaluator will need to visualize the landscape as represented by a topographic map. This is not difficult once the following basic concepts of the topographic maps are understood.

Each contour line on a topographic map represents a ground elevation or vertical distance above a reference point such as sea level. A contour line is level with respect to the earth's surface just like the top of a building foundation. All points along any one contour line are at the same elevation.

The difference in elevation between two adjacent contours is called the contour interval. This is typically given in the map legend. It represents the vertical distance you would need to climb or descend from one contour elevation to the next.

The horizontal distance between contours, on the other hand, is determined by the steepness of the landscape and can vary greatly on a given map. On relatively flat ground, two 20 foot contours can be far apart horizontally. 

On a steep cliff face two 20 foot contours might be directly above and below each other. In each case the vertical distance between the contour lines would still be twenty feet.

Image of the concentric circles of the elevation lines a circular rounded hill. One of the easiest landscapes to visualize on a topographic map is an isolated hill. If this hill is more or less circular the map will show it as a series of more or less concentric circles (Figure E-1, left.  Click here or on the figure for a higher-quality, larger image). Imagine that a surveyor actually marks these contour lines onto the ground. If two people start walking in opposite directions on the same contour line, beginning at point A, they will eventually meet face to face.

If these same two people start out in opposite directions on different contours, beginning at points A and B respectively, they will pass each other somewhere on the hill and their vertical distance apart would remain 20 feet. Their horizontal distance apart could be great or small depending on the steepness of the hillside where they pass.

A rather more complicated situation is where two hills are connected by a saddle (Figure E-2, left. Click here or on the figure for a higher-quality, larger image). Here each hill is circled by contours but at some point toward the base of the hills, contours begin to circle both hills.

Image of the elevation lines of two hills connected by a saddle. How do contours relate to water flow? A general rule of thumb is that water flow is perpendicular to contour lines. In the case of the isolated hill, water flows down on all sides of the hill. Water flows from the top of the saddle or ridge, down each side in the same way water flows down each side of a garden wall (See arrow on Figure E-2).

As the water continues downhill it flows into progressively larger watercourses and ultimately into the ocean. Any point on a watercourse can be used to define a watershed. That is, the entire drainage area of a major river like the Merrimack can be considered a watershed, but the drainage areas of each of its tributaries are also watersheds.

Each tributary in turn has tributaries, and each one of these tributaries has a watershed. This process of subdivision can continue until very small, local watersheds are defined which might only drain a few acres, and might not contain a defined watercourse.

an idealized watershed of a small stream Figure E-3 (right, click here or on the figure for a higher-quality, larger image) shows an idealized watershed of a small stream. Water always flows downhill perpendicular to the contour lines. As one proceeds upstream, successively higher and higher contour lines first parallel then cross the stream. This is because the floor of a river valley rises as you go upstream. Like-wise the valley slopes upward on each side of the stream. A general rule of thumb is that topographic lines always point upstream. With that in mind, it is not difficult to make out drainage patterns and the direction of flow on the landscape even when there is no stream depicted on the map. In Figure E-3, for example, the direction of streamflow is from point A to point B.

Ultimately, you must reach the highest point upstream. This is the head of the watershed, beyond which the land slopes away into another watershed. At each point on the stream the land slopes up on each side to some high point then down into another watershed. If you were to join all of these high points around the stream you would have the watershed boundary. (High points are generally hill tops, ridge lines, or saddles).