Digital river maps transform waterways into colorful art

Kate Springer, CNNPublished 18th July 2017
(CNN) — When you think about the world of cartography, antique sepia maps are likely the first images that come to mind. But nomadic digital cartographer Robert Szucs saw the potential to turn nature's patterns into contemporary artwork.
Under his moniker Grasshopper Geography, the Hungarian artist uses open-source software and satellite data to paint the world's rivers. As a result, China's Yangtze swims in a sea of colors, while the Mississippi swirls in soft pastels.
Why rivers?
"Because they are amazing," Szucs tells CNN. "I mean, look at my US river map -- I created the design, the colors, the width of the lines. But I did not draw any of the lines."
"It's nature's amazing work. I just found a way to show it in a new way, a fitting way."

A digital world

GIS artist Robert Szucs found a new way to showcase beautiful rivers around the world. (Robert Szucs/Grasshopper Geography)
Szuc's river maps began as a creative outlet and an escape from everyday office drudgery.
A cartographer by profession, Szucs harnesses QGIS -- an open-source geographic information system -- to prepare the data and design the maps. He then loads up GIMP image editing software to fine-tune the lines, creating a dramatic visual effect.
"It's all 100% scientific, based on satellite data and digital elevation models," he says. "Every stream and river is placed on a scale of 1-10, based on the stream order (size)."
He spends days tinkering with the width of every single line and going through dozens of color iterations. There are more than 1,000 river basins or watersheds in most of his artwork -- and the number of lines can reach over a million.
"I usually have an idea, an image in my head. Then I spend days and sometimes weeks trying to get there," says Szucs.
"My river maps usually have hundreds, sometime more than a thousand river basins, but I want each one to be perfect."

Mapping the world

Szucs has since left his job and lived around the world to deepen his understanding on geography.(Robert Szucs/Grasshopper Geography)
Until about 18 months ago, 31-year-old Szucs spent his days as a geographic information systems (GIS) analyst cooped up in an office in the UK using digital data to create maps. And now? He's since ditched the 9-5 entirely and hit the road, traveling and working around the world.
"Studying geography, and just moving around in those circles, makes you realize how many amazing places there are on this planet, so I'm following my big dream," says Szucs. "I'm on a mission to live at least a couple of months on every continent, in every major cultural region."
So far, he says he's lived in four out of the seven continents, spending an average of three to six months in each location.
Szucs has worked for an archeologist on the tiny Caribbean island of St. Eustatius, with a marine biologist in Alaska, and in an orangutan conservation program in Indonesian Borneo.
"I want to get to know the people and their society in a place, learn how they live, how they think, how they approach problems, and learn from them," he says. "With my map skills, I've been able to look for long lost forts, track whales and their food as they migrate, help lobby decision makers about the importance of rainforests and primate conservation."

An evolving landscape

Technology has made new forms of cartography art possible. Here is a global population density heat map. (Robert Szucs/Grasshopper Geography)
With mobile phones and GPS, Szucs says that maps are more integral to our lives than ever -- and yet people are rarely conscious of their impact.
"From crime maps for the police to income maps for insurance companies, whale distribution maps for an NGO or delicate works of art you can hang on your wall, cartography is everywhere," says Szucs. "Try taking away your GPS and Google Maps -- and see how your life would be."
Today, the digital nature of cartography means that the field is constantly changing. And, as part of a digital generation, Szucs says it's an exciting time for his industry.
"I have never made a map on paper. Technology made my work possible in the past couple of decades, and is expanding my possibilities drastically year by year," he says.
"I mean, I was a GIS Analyst last year. Now I'm a GIS Artist. Who would have thought?"
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