Quill and Quire


« Back to
Book Reviews

The Cartographic Satellite Atlas of the World


Canadian Oxford World Atlas, 4th Edition

by Quentin H. Stanford

Like many publishers, Nick Pitt attends the annual Frankfurt Book Fair. Two years ago, the vice-president of Toronto’s Warwick Publishing was drawn to a display of satellite imagery of Earth – aerial images that offered a cloud-free view of the continents – and was told how these pictures have been a boon to cartographers and a godsend to publishers of atlases.

The display in question belonged to WorldSat of Mississauga, Ontario – one of only half a dozen companies around the world that transform satellite transmissions into fine-art imagery suitable for print. Pitt, recognizing a good publishing opportunity, suggested the two companies work together to produce a space-based atlas.

The Cartographic Satellite Atlas of the World is the first such atlas created and printed in Canada. The large format (10132 x 14132) offers over 100 maps, full-page or double-page spread, in a handsome – and dizzying – package. Elevations in these maps leave one feeling giddy, so powerful is the 3-D effect. For instance, on the map of Western Canada, the Rocky Mountains seem to pop off the page. In contrast, the plains of Saskatchewan resemble craquelure spreading over the face of the prairies. The snow-covered peaks of Switzerland are made to resemble the frost that fringes the ice-cube tray in the refrigerator; even the ocean (featureless pale blue on maps in regular atlases) has taken on a texture to match the irregularities of the ocean floor.

The esthetic appeal of the Satellite Atlas is obvious and striking. But its artistic qualities do not diminish the atlas’s general usefulness – the standard place names appear on these maps, and are handled with considerable typographic aplomb.

With the wealth of greens and browns, yellows and whites, political boundaries recede in importance. National borders, indicated by snaking red lines, seem almost an intrusion. There are eight maps devoted to Canada and the terrain of the country has never looked more varied and rugged. Finally, there is an 84-column index of names and locations.

Everyone has a favourite atlas. My favourite, which I have been consulting for decades, is a treasured copy of the Canadian Oxford Canadian Atlas (2nd edition, issued in 1957). Its dark blue binding is battered and torn, but the book’s contents still bring me pleasure. It is satisfyingly large (10132 x 15132) and more than a third larger than its subsequent editions. To be sure, my 1957 copy is badly out of date. Yet despite continental drift, shifting politicial boundaries, and confusing name changes, I find it comforting that so many important features do remain in place – mountains, rivers, countries, regions, and cities.

The grandchild of my favourite atlas is the 4th edition of the Canadian Oxford World Atlas. Like its predecessors, it is a Canadianized version of the British atlas, but it is smaller than my favourite by a couple of inches each way, and gone from the front of the book is the all-Canadian gazetteer. Yet the general needs of Canadian readers are well served by the maps in the new book. To cover the country from sea to sea to sea, there are 46 pages of maps out of a total of 144.

Over the years Oxford’s cartographers have inched towards using colour more didactically and dramatically. For instance, the map of the Atlantic Provinces in the new book gives a greater sense of elevation and relief than does the map in my 1957 edition. As well, the letterforms in the new book are larger and more attractively positioned than in the old book. There are 16 weather-satellite-derived images, but these are used to illustrate specific features, not to represent major maps. Although the maps are now one-quarter smaller than they once were, they look equally detailed and the lettering is quite readable.

The captions, legends, and place names of the Canadian Oxford World Atlas are up to date. It is heartening to note the appearance of new place names, but disheartening to watch old, familiar ones undergo sea changes. For instance, the map of the Northwest Territories now features an “Inuvik Region,” which is new, but the region’s major northern community is now identified as “Ak-lvarik.” This is not a misprint for Aklavik; given are both the Inuktitut form and the English form of the place name.