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Topographic Map Tools in Excel

by David Weedmark

Microsoft Excel includes four useful charts you can use to design and plot a topographic map. After you have entered the appropriate data in a worksheet, you can create a flat top-down view of the data, using a contour chart or a wireframe contour chart. To create a 3-dimensional map of the data, use the 3-D surface chart or the wireframe 3-D surface chart.

Contour Charts

Excel's Contour Chart arranges data from a worksheet into a top-down two-dimensional image that can be ideal for creating topographic maps. The Contour Chart uses different colors to represent different bands of similar values. The lines in the chart connect points in the chart that are of the same value. Wireframe Contour Chart uses color lines to represent different values without the bands of color between them.

3-D Surface Charts

The Excel 3-D Surface Charts are similar to the Contour Charts, except they show the image in a three-dimensional rendering of the data. Although this does create an interesting map, if values in the front of the chart are higher than those behind them, the values in the back can be hard to see. The Wireframe 3-D Surface Chart shows only the lines between values, without painting the surface. This can be harder to read, but the chart surface doesn't obscure details in the back.

Plotting a Map

It's important to arrange the data properly in a worksheet before trying to use a chart as a topographic map. The Y-axis of the map, running north to south, should be placed in the first row of the worksheet, beginning with cell B1. The X-axis, running east to west, should be in the first column of the chart, beginning with cell A2. You can then type the elevations for each point of the map in the appropriate cells where the row titles intersect with the column titles.

Map Appearance

To use a Contour or 3-D Surface Chart, you can select "Other Charts" from the Charts group of the Insert tab. Depending on the amount of data that has to be processed, it may take several seconds for the chart to render before it is visible. If you click on the part of the chart you want to change, such as a color band, or contour line, you can then change its appearance. You can do this by clicking the "Format" tab, then "Format Selection." You can then select "Shape Fill" to change the color, or "Shape Outline" to change the lines.

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