Atlas maps - physical and human features

Atlases provide maps on global and national scales. Some atlas maps show physical features, whilst others show human features.

Physical maps

Physical maps show natural features such as mountains, lowlands, major rivers, seas, oceans and ecosystems like deserts and rainforests on a global scale. On a national scale, physical maps show relief and drainage features, such as rivers.

Some maps show physical features that are experienced rather than seen. Examples of this are average temperature and rainfall maps.

Northwest Scotland has the greatest average rainfall, with over 3,000 mm. East England receives the least, with less than 700 mm.Source: the Met Office

Human and political maps

Political maps show country boundaries and major cities. Human maps show features that people have created. Examples of these are population distribution, migration flows, transport routes and settlement layout.

Some maps show human features that are experienced rather than seen. Examples of this are life expectancy, standard of living or even measures of world happiness.

Countries are shaded in different colours. A key shows what the colours correspond to.


Often, maps should have a direction arrow to show which way is north. North is at the top of the globe and south is at the bottom. East is to the right and west is to the left. Compass points in between these four are shown as combinations, eg the point in between north and east is called north-east. If the point is slightly closer to the east, it is called east-north-east.

The compass directions are, in clockwise order from the top: North, East, South, West. In between these are North-East, South-East, South-West and North-West.

Latitude and longitude

Latitude and longitude enable users to find locations on atlases.

  • As the Earth is a sphere, lines of latitude and longitude are measured using degrees of a circle.
  • Lines of latitude run from east to west. The Equator is a line of latitude that lies at 0°. Lines above this are shown as °N (north) and lines below this are shown as °S (south).
  • Lines of longitude run from north to south. The Prime or Greenwich Meridian in London is a line of longitude at 0°. Lines to the right of this are shown as °E (east) and lines to the left of this are shown as °W (west).

Latitude is shown first and longitude is shown second, eg Manchester in the UK is at 53.5°N, 2.2°W.

Lines of latitude run along the east-west axis. The equator is an example. Lines of longitude run along the north-south axis. The prime meridian is an example.