Scale and accuracy

Many maps are drawn to a scale expressed as a ratio, such as 1:10,000, which means that 1 unit of measurement on the map corresponds to 10,000 of that same unit on the ground. The scale statement can be accurate when the region mapped is small enough for the curvature of the Earth to be neglected, such as a city map. Mapping larger regions, where curvature cannot be ignored, requires projections to map from the curved surface of the Earth to the plane. The impossibility of flattening the sphere to the plane without distortion means that the map cannot have constant scale. Rather, on most projections the best that can be attained is accurate scale along one or two paths on the projection. Because scale differs everywhere, it can only be measured meaningfully as point scale per location. Most maps strive to keep point scale variation within narrow bounds. Although the scale statement is nominal it is usually accurate enough for most purposes unless the map covers a large fraction of the earth. At the scope of a world map, scale as a single number is practically meaningless throughout most of the map. Instead, it usually refers to the scale along the equator.

Large scale maps, (e.g. 1:10,000), cover relatively small regions in great detail and small scale maps, (e.g. 1:10,000,000), cover large regions such as nations, continents and the whole globe. The large/small terminology arose from the practice of writing scales as numerical fractions: 1/10,000 is larger than 1/10,000,000. There is no exact dividing line between large and small but 1/100,000 might well be considered as a medium scale. Examples of large scale maps are the 1:25,000 maps produced for hikers; on the other hand maps intended for motorists at 1:250,000 or 1:1,000,000 are small scale.

It is important to recognize that even the most accurate maps sacrifice a certain amount of accuracy in scale to deliver a greater visual usefulness to its user. For example, the width of roads and small streams are exaggerated when they are too narrow to be shown on the map at true scale; that is, on a printed map they would be narrower than could be perceived by the naked eye. The same applies to computer maps where the smallest unit is the pixel. A narrow stream say must be shown to have the width of a pixel even if at the map scale it would be a small fraction of the pixel width.

Some maps, called cartograms, have the scale deliberately distorted to reflect information other than land area or distance. For example, this map (at the right) of Europe has been distorted to show population distribution, while the rough shape of the continent is still discernible.

Another example of distorted scale is the famous London Underground map. The basic geographical structure is respected but the tube lines (and the River Thames) are smoothed to clarify the relationships between stations. Near the center of the map stations are spaced out more than near the edges of map.

Further inaccuracies may be deliberate. For example, cartographers may simply omit military installations or remove features solely in order to enhance the clarity of the map. For example, a road map may not show railroads, smaller waterways or other prominent non-road objects, and even if it does, it may show them less clearly (e.g. dashed or dotted lines/outlines) than the main roads. Known as decluttering, the practice makes the subject matter that the user is interested in easier to read, usually without sacrificing overall accuracy. Software-based maps often allow the user to toggle decluttering between ON, OFF and AUTO as needed. In AUTO the degree of decluttering is adjusted as the user changes the scale being displayed