3 minute read

Advice given on December 30, 2021.

Mapping Stuff

Hey Jay,

Some people make really neat maps with all sorts of cool animations. Any idea how they do this? I’d like to do some magical mapping of my own!


Cartographically Challenged

Cartographically Challenged,

It’s a super interesting question and one I’ve asked myself a lot as I have seen so many cool cartographic images, animations, and products over the last few years. So I don’t have all the answers to this question, but I can clue you in on what I do know about the various software and procedures I’ve seen people use to generate cool looking maps.

The most common software used for making maps is going to be one of the GIS or Geographical Information System software tools. The industry leaders in this space are the popular ESRI ArcMap and ArcGIS products, although in recent years the open-source QGIS project has been closing this gap and provides what I think is a really nice interface. Ultimately, I think your choice in GIS tool will be dictated by the end-goal of your map making activities. If you have access to ESRI products and are looking to land a job in the map making world, then it is worth the time to learn how to use the Arc products. For hobby map making, I don’t think the license is worth the cost, however, and you should definitely explore QGIS. Even if you want a job in GIS, I would say don’t pay for ESRI, the QGIS option is very similar, and for many things better than the ESRI alternative.

There are also several programmatic options for generating maps. Both Python and JavaScript have a number of libraries designed for making maps, so if you are keen on getting in to making maps via programming, consider checking those languages and their ecosystems out. There is also Generic Mapping Tools, or GMT, a favorite of Earth, Ocean, and Planetary scientists that is essentially run from the command line, although wrapper libraries for Matlab, Julia, and Python do exist.

I’ve also seen very cool maps generated using Blender, which is an open-source 3D computer graphics software. Blender is capable of rendering high quality animations and other graphics, although there’s a bit of a learning curve and it can be computationally demanding to generate a graphic using it.

Happy Map Making,


Computational Methods for Studying River Deltas

Dear Jay,

I am on the precipice of beginning a research journey looking at the evolution of river deltas. I’m hoping to do some numerical modeling, remote sensing, and overall just would like to become familiar with popular numerical methods for doing this type of work. Where should I start?

-Really Real Person


This feels like a question I would write in to myself (if I did that sort of thing). So I will answer this in a very self-serving way, but that being said, I encourage you to explore a bit, read the literature, and find the models and methods best suited to what you want to do.

So, to simulate river delta evolution I encourage you to check out our pyDeltaRCM project. This model takes a simplified approach to modeling the physics behind the formation of a river delta, and is highly configurable. To analyze model outputs we’re in the midst of developing a companion package, currently named DeltaMetrics.

If, on the other hand, you want to analyze some remote sensing data, you might consider checking out RivGraph. RivGraph lets you analyze channel networks through the lens of graph theory, and comes packaged with a bunch of built-in tools and methods for easy quantitative analysis of your data.

Good luck!