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Striking New Maps Show the Beauty of Earth's Shadows

Iceland. All images: Robbi-Bishop Taylor
Iceland. All images: Robbi-Bishop Taylor

We are visual beings: Our perception of the world is intrinsically tied to our ability to perceive light. But what about the places where light doesn’t fall? Do places in shadow still encode information for the visual cortex to process? Can shadows actually tell us something meaningful about the landscapes they darken?

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“Shadowlands,” a stunning new series of maps by geographer and data scientist Robbi Bishop-Taylor, explores these questions. The maps, which Bishop-Taylor released recently on his Imgur page, show us the topography of the continental United States and Europe as mapped by sunset shadows—the shadows cast by hills and mountains just before sunset on a summer solstice.

It’s an eerie and surprisingly beautiful way of looking at the world.

The Transylvanian Alps, Romanian Plain and Balkan Mountains
The Transylvanian Alps, Romanian Plain and Balkan Mountains
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“The idea for the maps came out of a desire to showcase the structure and shape of the Earth’s natural landscapes in a beautiful, minimalist way,” Bishop-Taylor, who is finishing a PhD in geospatial science at the University of New South Wales in Australia, told Gizmodo in an email. “My hope is by showing the familiar features of the planet—hills, mountains, rivers—from a new, unfamiliar perspective, my maps can help introduce others to the incredible beauty of geography that might otherwise go unseen.”

To make the maps, Bishop-Taylor drew on a high-resolution digital elevation model produced by NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, which contains data on the height of every 30 x 30-meter pixel of land across the entire planet. He then added simulated sunlight, using a sun angle just 1.5 degrees above the horizon to cast long shadows, and mapped everything out using ArcGIS.

Courtesy of Bishop-Taylor, we’re sharing a few of our favorite shadow maps here. If you’re a serious map geek looking for some sweet new wall decor, you can head on over to his Etsy page, where high-res versions of these maps and more are available for purchase. Bishop-Taylor is using the money from selling his maps to fund his PhD, which is honestly an awesome idea that’s worth supporting in its own right.

Europe

The European continent
The European continent
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The Alps and Po Valley
The Alps and Po Valley
The Carpathian Mountains and Great Hungarian Plain
The Carpathian Mountains and Great Hungarian Plain
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The Greek Islands
The Greek Islands

The United States

The continental United States
The continental United States
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The Cascade Range, Columbia Plateau, and Rocky Mountains
The Cascade Range, Columbia Plateau, and Rocky Mountains
Northern Appalachian Mountains
Northern Appalachian Mountains
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The Great Plains
The Great Plains
South Texas
South Texas
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Alaska
Alaska

[Seeker]

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Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.

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DISCUSSION

I always love reading Gizmodo when they try to write about mapping. As a GIS professional now for decades, hillshade mapping has been around for at least that long if not long, so this isn’t a new concept. This article makes is sound like Bishop-Taylor something ground breaking. He literally used a tool in ArcGIS with 4 needed inputs and 1 optional input on publicly available data. And if you’ve ever seen many National Geographic maps, you’ve seen this effect on them.