The Color of Fire: How Palette Choice Impacts Maps of Yosemite’s Rim Fire

Rim Fire progression map

By Betsy Mason from

Last week we posted a map of the Rim fire’s progression into Yosemite National Park from Inciweb. That map (see below) uses random, qualitative colors to represent the area burned by the fire each day. The result is colorful, and as the headline says, frightening. The wild colors make the fire look chaotic. Once it reaches a certain size, it becomes really hard to see the progression. You can see clearly what has burned each day, but the time sequence is disguised in a random color palette.

Many of you commented on this, including Robert Simmon, Lead Data Visualizer and Information Designer at NASA’s Earth Observatory. But Simmon took it a step further and made the new map above with a sequential color scale. This makes the order of the progression much more clear — and a lot more elegant too, while managing to remain scary. The apt color choice makes the burned area look like it is one big flame.

The Inciweb map grew incrementally and is being used to follow the fire on specific days, so using vastly different bright colors that easily stand out from each other was probably a conscious decision. But Simmon’s map gives people like us who are not on the front lines a much better grasp of the life of this fire.

“I prefer a sequential palette because dates are ordered,” Simmon told me in an email. “The Inciweb palette is suited for categorical data — data which is qualitative, not quantitative. In principle you can find the date by looking at the map, then the key, then back at the map, but that’s a difficult cognitive task. It’s made more difficult because there’s more than 10 categories, which is over the limit of readily perceptible colors.”

Simmon has a ton of great information about this sort of thing on his Elegant Figures blog, including posts on this very issue of qualitative versus sequential color scales, and a whole series on the subtleties of color.

“The palette I used is ordered, like the data,” Simmon said. “You can see the overall pattern instantaneously, with the fire progressing in two directions from the starting point. In general graphics are better at showing patterns than specific quantities, so I like to play to that strength.”

There are tradeoffs, however. Simmon notes that on his map, it’s harder to see distinct days.

“Another design decision was which side of the scale to emphasize,” Simmon said. “I chose to make the later dates more intense and more saturated, since those are most current and presumably relevant. I think the map would look better with earlier dates more intense, but be less informative.”

I don’t know which I think would look better. I suppose whichever looks more like an actual flame — so, the way it is now.

Map of Where 29,000 Rubber Duckies Made Landfall After Falling off a Cargo Ship in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean (#19), and 39 Other Informative Cartographies

Map of where rubber duckies made landfall

Amazing and unusual maps from

If you’re a visual learner like myself, then you know maps, charts and infographics can really help bring data and information to life. Maps can make a point resonate with readers and this collection aims to do just that.

Hopefully some of these maps will surprise you and you’ll learn something new. A few are important to know, some interpret and display data in a beautiful or creative way, and a few may even make you chuckle or shake your head.

If you enjoy this collection of maps, the Sifter highly recommends the r/MapPorn sub reddit. You should also check out There were also fantastic posts on Business Insider and Bored Panda earlier this year that are worth checking out. Enjoy!


1. Where Google Street View is Available


Map by Google



2. Countries That Do Not Use the Metric System




3. The Only 22 Countries in the World Britain Has Not Invaded (not shown: Sao Tome and Principe)




4. Map of ‘Pangea’ with Current International Borders


Map by via Reddit


Pangea was a supercontinent that existed during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras, forming about 300 million years ago. It began to break apart around 200 million years ago. The single global ocean which surrounded Pangaea is accordingly named Panthalassa.


5. McDonald’s Across the World




6. Paid Maternal Leave Around the World




7. The Most Common Surnames in Europe by Country




8. Worldwide Driving Orientation by Country




9. Map of Time Zones in Antarctica




10. Global Internet Usage Based on Time of Day


Map by Carna Botnet via Reddit



11. The World’s Busiest Air Routes in 2012




12. Visualizing Global Population Density




13. Flag Map of the World




14. Map of Alcohol Consumption Around the World




15. Map of Alcoholic Drink Popularity by Country




16. Map of Rivers in the Contiguous United States




17. US Map of the Highest Paid Public Employees by State




18. World Map of Earthquakes Since 1898




19. Map of Where 29,000 Rubber Duckies Made Landfall After Falling off a Cargo Ship in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean




20. Map of Countries with the Most Violations of Bribery




21. World Map of Vegetation on Earth





22. Average Age of First Sexual Intercourse by Country




23. If the World’s Population Lived in One City




24. The Number of Researchers per Million Inhabitants
Around the World




25. Worldwide Map of Oil Import And Export Flows




26. The 7000 Rivers that Feed into the Mississippi River




27. World Map of the Different Writing Systems




28. Worldwide Annual Coffee Consumption Per Capita




29. The Economic Center of Gravity Since 1 AD




30. The World Divided Into 7 Regions,
Each with a Population of 1 Billion




31. Earth’s Population by Latitude and Longitude


Photograph by mrgeng on Reddit



32. Map of Contiguous United States
Overlaid on the Moon




33. Frequency of Lightning Strikes Throughout the World




34. Overall Water Risk Around the World




35. The Most Dangerous Areas in the World
To Ship Due to Pirates




36. Area Codes in Which Ludacris Claims to Have H*es
(song reference)




37. Where 2% of Australia’s Population Lives




38. The Longest Straight Line You Can Sail on Earth
(Pakistan to Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia – 20000 miles)





39. Map of Europe Showing Literal
Chinese Translations for Country Names




40. Reversed Map with Southern Hemisphere at Top of Map (because position of North is arbitrary)


Map via



World Map Tattoo with Countries Visited Coloured


Rarely Seen Maps From San Francisco’s Quirkiest Hidden Library

Map library

By Greg Miller from

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library library  russian_0  cubadetail_0  ne-arabic-detail_0  radiostationmapnortheast_0  nyworldsfair_0  sfcartoonmap_0  sfcdplan2_0  oaklandarmybaseserased1942_0  rangesheep_0 richfieldwesternhwyreliefmaps_0  eriearea_0

Have you ever gone to a place you’ve always wanted to visit and found out it was even more awesome than you thought it would be? That’s how I felt last week when we visited the Prelinger Library, an eclectic collection run by Megan and Rick Prelinger (the folks in the photo below). I spent the rest of the day kicking myself for not getting there earlier, and a fair bit of the next day planning my return.

The library shares a building with a carpet store and a dance studio in a slightly ragged patch of San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. There’s no sign, but if you know what you’re looking for, you step inside the lobby and press a button on the intercom to be admitted. It’s like a speakeasy of maps.

OK, so there’s lots more than just maps, but maps are what we were there to see. On the library’s website, the Prelingers describe it as “a collection of 19th and 20th century historical ephemera, periodicals, maps, and books, most published in the United States.” They specialize in collecting stuff not commonly found in other libraries.

Inside, the space is small, mostly taken up by shelves. There’s a desk at the front for visitors to read and work. The smell makes me nostalgic for the tiny public library my mom used to take me to when I was a kid.

The library opened in 2004 and now houses something like 75,000 items. “The rule is, it takes one of us to acquire something and two of us to get rid of it,” Rick said.

“Everything that’s here is here because we’re interested in it,” Megan added. “We started the collection because we’re both independent makers drawing on neglected historical material.”

One project is a series of atlases for the map room at the recently re-opened Exploratorium. The atlases are printed on large Tyvek sheets to withstand the onslaught of curious children.

The maps in this gallery are just a tiny sample of the Prelingers’ collection, and they’re certainly not the last ones you’ll see featured here at Map Lab. One thing that strikes me about this group of maps is how they evoke the times and places they came from, from the optimistic spirit of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and Golden Gate International Exposition to the fear and paranoia of the Cold War.

Prepare to be transported.

<< Previous | Click here for larger images and information about the thumbnails below the large map image above.

Photos: Ariel Zambelich/WIRED

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Exhibition showcases artist’s highly intricate, hand-drawn maps

London Subterranea"
Incredible maps take on subterranean London, Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia.

By Olivia Solon from

Artist Stephen Walter has a solo exhibition [in London] showcasing his intricate hand-drawn maps, including two of London and one that revisits Thomas More’s fictional island state of Utopia.

In addition to cartography, Walker has created a series of landscapes often peppered with visual and textual information, including symbols and logos—traffic signs, tourist signs, and even religious iconography. Around a third of the show—called Anthropocene—will be made up of landscapes, while roughly two thirds of the show will be maps.

One of Walter’s most attention-grabbing pieces has been The Islanda piece that satirizes London-centricity, showing the capital and its commuter towns as independent from the rest of the country. The highly-detailed map features a wealth of information, symbols, and personal information. For example, in Westminster you will find “squirrel feeders,” “men in silly hats” along the Mall, and the “seat of power” at Downing Street, along with a hazard symbol.

Similarly, London Subterranea, commissioned by the London Transport Museum, shows what lies beneath the ground of the capital. From tube lines, sewers, and gas pipes to bunkers, burial sites, ley lines, and governmental tunnels.

New Utopia sees Walter reimagine the island of Utopia first described in Thomas More’s book from 1516.  It was originally described as a prosperous and egalitarian island republic. Walter uses Abraham Ortelius’s 1596 map as a template, but shows the island decades after a capitalist revolution has transformed its society, turning the place into a “leisure island” for those who go there.
Detail from London Subterranea

Click on images above and below for larger versions.

A total of 55 pieces will be shown in three rooms: one dedicated to the maps, one to landscapes, and a third looking at believability.

Walter told that he’s always been interested in using signs and symbols to produce images and tell stories. “My drive for storytelling has to work hard to find itself spoken through this filter of public language and shared concerns and inherited history. Maps are a collection of these signs and symbols.”

His pieces tend to focus on places that he really cares about, “otherwise it’s just sheer illustration.”

Once he’s decided on a place and a size of the piece, he immerses himself in reading and exploring to get “all sorts of random information.”

“Once they are all gathered I print them out and cut them up and then find their geographical location and divide them into boxes,” he said.

He has, for example, one box for the north of a city, one for the south etc. He then starts work on one area, sifting and editing through the information that he has gathered before, drawing as many of them on the map as possible.

When he has finished a section, he covers it up with A3 paper so that he can work on a new section without smudging the pencil with his elbows.

With fictional places such as Nova Utopia, he takes a slightly different approach. He started by reading Thomas More’s book Utopia and “started to pick holes in it.” “It plays around with the idea of utopias and dystopias,” he says. “Under the backstory of a capitalist revolution in 1900 on the island, everything has been privatized. Before there was no currency on the island—land ownership was a cardinal sin. Now everybody uses Utopia as a leisure island—a place where they can buy up land and build their own private utopias.”

He has placed the piece in a “hagioscope frame.” This fully encapsulates the work, allowing it to be visible only through a single, moveable portal fitted with a magnifying lens. This means that only one person can view the map at a time—an exclusive experience that is “making a mockery” of the egalitarian principles on which the traditional idea for Utopia is based.

“I like viewing works that require in-depth visual investigation. This forces you to look very closely at the picture.”

While his maps may have attracted a lot of attention, he doesn’t want to be known “just as a map man”. He says: “I love doing the maps and it’s a big chunk of my work but the landscape work is less didactic and I feel more like an artist.” One of his favourite landscapes is called Leyman, based on a landscape he saw in Dorset.

You can check out Walter’s work, presented by Tag Fine Arts, from July 3-28, 2013, at LondoNewcastle Project Space.

This story originally appeared on Wired UK.