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New Atlas Edition Reflects a Changing World

Americans had a brand new view of the world just in time for Geography Awareness Week November 14-20. The National Geographic Society, which hosts the annual event, has just published the eighth edition of its Atlas of the World. The Society made more than 15,000 changes from the previous version, issued five years ago. In addition to traditional maps, the book contains country-by-country profiles of political and economic data, as well as maps of cultural aspects - such as religions and languages.

Chief cartographer Allen Carroll says the new edition had to venture beyond the customary political maps. "I’ve always felt that, as beautiful and useful as those maps are, they're an awfully simple way at looking at the world," he said. "Those neat boundaries and nice little town spots don't reflect the complexities and changes going on. So we've added new pages on conflict and terror, human migration, fresh water, transportation, telecommunications and other subjects to reflect some of the interesting issues that geography is all about."

New items featured on the maps include everything from high-speed rail lines to space-launch ports, with a special focus on cities. "Within the last few years, we've reached the point that half of the world's population lives in cities," says cartographer Carroll. "That represents a huge change from our past as an agrarian economy to an urban, international, manufacturing and information-based economy."

National Geographic editor Michael Horner says readers will notice a number of changes in popular place names. "To a large degree, we follow the usage of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names," he says. "They tend to reflect the national usage, but things change. We've had times when the national government and state governments have different names for the same place in their country." Although his staff tries to follow the national usage, "we try to be flexible," he says.

In Africa, the new edition of the atlas shows Somaliland as an area of special sovereignty, where national control is disputed. The size of Lake Chad is shown greatly reduced because of evaporation and decreased stream flow.

On the maps of Asia, Calcutta has become Kolkata and East Timor is designated as an independent country. China's Three Gorges Dam and reservoir were added, and the Aral Sea shoreline was changed to show a significant reduction in its size. The map for Iraq shows the shorter names, used more commonly, such as Fallujah, as well as the original name Al Fallujah.

Changes in Europe include adding the region’s largest reservoir onto the map of Portugal, reflecting recent political changes in the two former Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro, and references to both Saint Petersburg and its local name, Sankt Peterburg.

For South America, the maps were updated to show new spellings for the Peruvian cities Cusco and Nasca – formerly Cuzco and Nazca. Also in Peru, the mapmakers added Bahuaja-Sonene National Park along with Bolivia's Madidi National Park. In combination, they make up one of the largest protected areas of the world.

National Georgraphic editor Michael Horner notes that South Korea has modified its transliteration system. "There were a lot of small changes," he says. "But it affected a lot of names in the atlas. That's going on all the time, especially in Central Asia, which was a challenge."

Chief cartographer Allen Carroll says some of the map changes have even been controversial, including the addition of the secondary name Arabian Gulf alongside the more traditional name, Persian Gulf. He points out some non-political changes as well. "We now show the highest point on the earth's surface as a little higher and the lowest point a little lower," he says. Those changes were made for different reasons. "The highest point, Mt. Everest, is two meters higher not because Mt. Everest has grown in the last five years, but because it's been measured more accurately, using the latest technology," says the National Geographic mapmaker. "The lowest point, the shores of the Dead Sea, is actually lower because the Dead Sea's water level has gone down."

Technological advances have not only made atlases more accurate, but also easier to prepare. "It's a wonderful time to be a cartographer," says Mr. Carroll, "because the tools we use in creating maps have changed so much and the data available to use is incredible. 20 or 30 years ago, the atlas was much more labor-intensive. It still takes a whole lot of labor. But having Geographic Information Systems and names data bases and graphics software eases our work and increases the creative portion of our work because of all the options."

The National Geographic atlas also has an integrated web site for each political map. As place names and borders change, the information is updated and atlas users can print out and paste the modified sections onto their individual maps. "One of the things that's scary for us is to finish work on an atlas and then have a major change happen," says Mr. Carroll. "Now, we're not going through a period of macro-level changes like the break-up of the Soviet Union. But to some extent, a changing world means job security for us. It allows us to keep working on future editions of the atlas."

Indeed, Allen Carroll and his team, in between a variety of map and illustration projects for the National Geographic's many books and magazines, have already started working on the next edition of the Atlas of the World.