Classes of Map Projection

There are several ways to classify the wide variety of map projections. One of the most common classifications is by distortion characteristics: which properties of the Earth does the projection maintain? Which does it distort?

Classification based on distortion characteristics
A projection that maintains accurate relative sizes is called an equal area, or equivalent projection. These projections are used for maps that show distributions or other phenomena where showing area accurately is important. Examples are the Lambert Azimuthal Equal-Area projection and the Albers Equal-Area Conic projection.

An Azimuthal Equal-Area projection The National Atlas of the United States uses a Lambert Azimuthal Equal-Area projection to display information in the online Map Maker. In addition to its equal-area properties, this projection also shows true directions from the center point of the map. This means that the projection works well for mapping areas that extend equally from the center point, such as North America.

Mercator projection on a globe and map. Mercator projection A projection that maintains angular relationships and accurate shapes over small areas is called a conformal projection. These projections are used where angular relationships are important, such as for navigational or meteorological charts. Examples are the Mercator projection and the Lambert Conformal Conic projection. The U.S. Geological Survey uses a conformal projection for many of its topographic maps.

A projection that maintains accurate distances from the center of the projection or along given lines is called an equidistant projection. These projections are used for radio and seismic mapping, and for navigation. Examples are the Equidistant Conic projection and the Equirectangular projection. The Azimuthal Equidistant projection is the projection used for the emblem of the United Nations.

A projection that maintains accurate directions (and therefore angular relationships) from a given central point is called an azimuthal or zenithal projection. These projections are used for aeronautical charts and other maps where directional relationships are important. Examples are the Gnomonic projection and the Lambert Azimuthal Equal-Area projection.

A map projection may combine several of these characteristics, or may be a compromise that distorts all the properties of shape, area, distance, and direction, within some acceptable limit. Examples of compromise projections are the Winkel Tripel projection and the Robinson projection, often used for world maps.

Classification based on developable surface.

Map projections can also be classified based on the shape of the developable surface to which the Earth’s surface is projected. A developable surface is a simple geometric form capable of being flattened without stretching, such as a cylinder, cone, or plane.Cylindrical projection showing tangent at a selected line and secant along two lines.

Cylindrical projection.

For example, a cylindrical projection projects information from the spherical Earth to a cylinder. The cylinder may be either tangent to the Earth along a selected line, or may be secant (intersect the Earth) along two lines. Imagine that once the Earth’s surface is projected, the cylinder is unwrapped to form a flat surface. The lines where the cylinder is tangent or secant are the places with the least distortion.

Transverse and oblique mercator projections on a cylinder and map.A Mercator projection is created using a cylinder tangent at the equator. A Transverse Mercator projection is created using a cylinder that is tangent at a selected meridian. An Oblique Mercator projection is created using a cylinder that is tangent along a great circle other than the equator or a meridian.
Polyconic projection on a globe and map.

Polyconic projection A conic projection projects information from the spherical Earth to a cone that is either tangent to the Earth at a single parallel, or that is secant at two standard parallels. Once the projection is complete, the cone is unwrapped to form a flat surface. The lines where the cone is tangent or secant are the places with the least distortion. A polyconic projection uses a series of cones to reduce distortion.

A planar projection projects information to a plane. The plane may be either tangent or secant.

Commonly Used Map Projection Terms

Azimuth—The angle, measured in degrees, between a base line radiating from a center point and another line radiating from the same point. Normally, the base line points North, and degrees are measured clockwise from the base line.

Azimuthal—A map projection in which the direction from a given central point to any other point is shown correctly. Also called a zenithal projection.

Aspect—The placement of a projection system relative to the Earth’s axis. A polar aspect is tangent at the pole, an equatorial aspect is tangent at the Equator, and an oblique aspect is tangent anywhere else. (The word “aspect” has replaced the word “case” in the modern cartographic literature.)

Cartesian coordinate system —A coordinate system in which a point’s location is described by its distances from a set of perpendicular lines that intersect at an origin, either two lines in a plane or three in space.

Conformal—A map projection in which the angles at each point are preserved. This means that the shapes of small areas are maintained accurately. The size of most areas, however, is distorted.

Conic—A map projection where the Earth’s surface is projected onto a tangent or secant cone, which is then cut from apex to base and laid flat.
Conic Projection on a globe and map. One shows tangent at a single parallel and the other secant at two parallels.

Cylindrical—A map projection where the Earth’s surface is projected onto a tangent or secant cylinder, which is then cut lengthwise and laid flat.