Political And Physical Map

There are hundreds of unique maps in use, with each showing different data. However, most maps are categorized into either reference maps or thematic maps. Thematic maps show different variations or themes across geographic areas. A weather map showing monthly precipitation or daily temperatures across North America is an example of a thematic map. Other examples include resource maps and income maps. Reference maps show Earth’s different attributes, including physical features, geographic locations and boundaries, and other places such as towns and cities. Physical maps, political maps, road maps, topographic maps, and geologic maps are examples of reference maps. This article focuses on political and physical maps and the difference between the two maps.

Physical Maps

Physical map of the world
Physical map of the world. 

Physical and political maps are among the most popularly used reference maps because they show some of the most important places and features on the planet. Although physical maps illustrate most of the information found in political maps, the two types of maps serve different purposes and bear other different elements or features.

A physical map shows the Earth’s identifiable natural landscape features, including drainage features, relief, and topographic features. The maps are best known to illustrate the physical features either by shaded relief or colors.  Physical maps also illustrate some essential political boundaries, such as country or state boundaries. However, this information is not the major focus; it is only included as a geographic reference.

Physical maps provide information about relief or topography or the shape, depth, and height of the natural features. These physical features include deserts, mountains, water bodies, and other identifiable landforms. Cartographers often use different colors and color hues to represent the various physical features on a map.  Most maps have brown, green, or gray color schemes for showing gradient relief. The dark green color is often used to indicate elevations that are mostly near sea level, with the color transitioning into tan and brown as elevation increases. Gray often represents the highest elevation.   

Physical map of Canada
Physical map of Canada showing the relief, surrounding water bodies, major lakes, and more.

Drainage features, such as oceans, sea, lakes, rivers, and gulfs, often appear blue, with light blue representing shallow areas and the color darkening as the water body becomes deeper. Rivers and streams are represented by thin blue lines, while white represents ice caps and glaciers. Like other maps, physical maps have a map key that explains all the symbols on the map.

Since physical maps are used to show the Earth’s geographic features and natural landscape, these maps can be used by almost anyone who requires information about a region’s geology or geography. The physical map users could include students researching any geographic feature. Pilots also use this map while flying planes to show the distance traveled and when to fly on higher elevation to avoid crashing on physical features such as mountains.

Political Maps

Political map of usa
Political Map of the United States showing the 50 states of the country.

Although physical maps contain some political information, the detailed geographical features are not necessary on a political map. Political maps are widely used reference maps that show governmental and geographic boundaries between units such as countries, counties, states, provinces, or regions. They may also show major cities, towns, and settlements depending on the purpose or use. In short, political maps indicate political features of a given place, including political boundaries.

A political boundary is a line separating neighboring places controlled by different governments. Sometimes, a political boundary corresponds to a geographic boundary like rivers or mountains. For example, part of the US-Canada border runs through a geographic feature (Great Lakes). However, political boundaries are mostly imaginary lines decided through negotiations and treaties.

Although political maps do not show topographic features, they may indicate certain physical elements, including drainage features such as lakes, rivers, and oceans, and mountains. These physical features on a political map are only used as geographical references. Besides physical features, political maps may also contain transportation networks like roads and rail.

Like physical maps, political maps also feature different colors for different places. For instance, different colors may be used on a country map to show the various places such as towns, states, provinces, or regions. However, there is no rule for choosing or using colors on a political map. However, three to four colors are often sufficient irrespective of the map size. An example of a political map is the map of the United States showing all the 50 states and the bordering places, with different states represented by different colors.

Israel political map
Political map of Israel showing the territories of West Bank and Gaza Strip. The latter two territories together comprise the State of Palestine, a de jure sovereign state. Political maps also help recognize the boundaries of disputed territories.

Without a political map, one may not know the extent of a country, state, or region. Knowing where political boundaries are located is essential in determining who controls a region and the natural resources. Political boundaries have been a source of territorial disputes between nations, especially where borders were not clearly spelled out. However, the International Court of Justice and other international bodies rely on political maps to settle such disputes.

Similarities And Differences Between Political And Physical Maps

Although physical and political maps are different, they share certain similarities or some common features. Both maps feature different colors, representing distinct elements. Thus, the first thing one will notice on the maps is the different colors. The other common similarity between the two maps is that a physical map can indicate certain political features and vice versa. For instance, a political map may contain geographic features like oceans and mountains, while physical maps may contain political boundaries. Also, both maps have some names on them, indicating the various places represented on the maps.

Political map of the United Kingdom showing some physical features like oceans and rivers.

However, the political and physical maps are strikingly different in several ways. Physical maps indicate mainly the geographic elements like drainage and relief features, while political maps show territorial characteristics such as government boundaries, states, cities, and different countries. Although both maps feature different colors, the only difference is that physical maps feature mostly dull colors such as green, brown, gray, and blue colors for different elevations, while political maps can feature mostly bright colors to differentiate places. While political maps feature names of places such as cities, countries, or states, physical maps feature mainly names of geographical features, such as plains, oceans, or mountain ranges.