Natural Earth Vector and Raster Data

I haven’t been posting regularly as I’ve been swamped this semester – but now that it’s coming to an end I should be able to crank out a post or two each month.

I recently saw a message on Maps-L about a new GIS data source, Natural Earth, and just got around to taking a look at it. It’s run by a volunteer organization dedicated to providing free, integrated, public domain map layers for producing high-quality maps at small scales. They have a pretty comprehensive website that includes a blog, feature list, contributor information, and details on how to volunteer.

Natural Earth provides smooth, generalized vector and raster layers at three scales: 1:10m, 1:50m, and 1:110m. See my screen shot of the Delmarva peninsula to see the distinctions (beige area is 110m, red line is 50m, and blue line is 10m).


Having a choice of scales with vector and raster data layers from the same source is a huge plus (many other country-level boundary files available on the web are detailed and suitable for large scale maps, but look messy when you zoom out to a smaller scale). Natural Earth also provide outlines for land and water (including legal water boundaries for all the Pacific islands), hydrographic features generalized to the different scales, ice shelves, urban areas, and several lat/long grid line layers.

For country boundaries they’ve gotten around the tangled issue of country definitions by providing different layers for different definitions, so you can choose the one that’s most appropriate – sovereign states (so, Greenland would be part of the Denmark polygon, Alaska and Puerto Rico part of the US, and French Guiana part of France), countries (Greenland separate from the Denmark polygon, Puerto Rico separate from the US, Alaska part of the US, and French Guiana part of France), and subunits (each place its own polygon). As you move down this hierarchy, places are linked back to their whole (so there are fields in the subunit file that list which country and sovereign state it’s part of).

At this point subdivisions (states / provinces) are only provided for the US and Canada. They do provide some descriptive metadata for each layer on the website, but the metadata doesn’t follow any standardized format for geographic data. The biggest missing link is unique identifiers – none of the countries have ISO or FIPS codes, so there aren’t any fields to join attribute data to for thematic mapping (except country name, which never works smoothly given the amount of variation with names).

Overall this looks like a great resource. Vector data is in shapefile format, raster data is in tiff, and everything is defined as simple WGS 84, so these files should work with almost any GIS package, ready to go.

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