Scale is a fundamental concept of geography and is as essential for understanding Earth and its environments as it is for implementing public policy. Its precise definition is often debated by geographers, in part, because various subfields of geography use scale in different ways. Generally, scale is a form of size. 

Map or Cartographic Scale

Map or cartographic scale is the ratio of a distance on Earth compared to the same distance on a map. There are three types of scales commonly used on maps: written or verbal scale, a graphic scale, or a fractional scale. A written or verbal scale uses words to describe the relationship between the map and the landscape it depicts such as one inch represents one mile. A map reader would use a ruler to measure the distances between places. A graphic scale is a bar marked off like a ruler with labels outlining the distances the segments represent. Just as you would with a written or verbal scale to measure distance with this type of scale you would use a ruler. Finally, a fractional scale, typically represented as a ratio (1/50,000 or 1:50,000), indicates that one unit (inch, centimeter, football field or pitch, etc.) on the map represents the second number of that same unit on Earth. So if the ratio was 1:50,000 one centimeter on the map would represent 50,000 centimeters (500 meters) in real life. The whole map, at this ratio, would encompass a typical county in the United States.

Somewhat counterintuitively we describe detailed maps of smaller areas as large scale maps and global maps as small scale. This is best illustrated with the fractional scale system. A large-scale map has a smaller ratio (1:10,000 or 1:25,000) and would have more details such as streets and building footprints. Whereas a small-scale map has a larger ratio (1:500,000 or 1:1,000,000) and illustrates an entire state, province, or country with just the larger cities or towns and major highways. Maps are not complete without a scale. It is key to making an accurate and understandable map. 

Spatial Scale

There are three more general ways to describe scale as well: local, regional, and global. Local-scale is a specific place with unique physical features such as climate, topography, and vegetation

Regions, however, vary considerably in size. They are generally larger than one place, such as a town or city, and may include several towns or multiple states or provinces. There are three types of regions: formal, functional, and vernacular. The easiest to identify is a formal region as it has recognized boundaries or borders and often governments. An example would be the German state of Bavaria or the Sahara Desert. A functional, or nodal, region is characterized by a common point or trait and is frequently used to describe economic areas such as the metropolitan area around Washington, D.C. in the United States. Finally, a vernacular or perceptual region is one that has characteristics that are perceived to be different from that of the surrounding areas. An example would be the Appalachian Mountains in the United States. Certain economic activities and cultural characteristics are attributed to an area that encompasses nine U.S. states that the mountain range covers.

Global-scale, of course, covers all of Earth. Studying patterns at this scale is critical due to globalization. As the world becomes more interconnected information, goods, and ideas are traded at faster and faster rates changing the way we communicate and live. While most feel globalization has not destroyed the uniqueness of specific places, forces promoting globalization often come into conflict with those focused on preserving local traditions. Additionally, in some cases, globalization has increased the wealth gap between wealthy and poorer nations.

Examining patterns in different scales is critical to understanding the problem and its effects, which often vary by location. In the study of climate change, choices made at the local level, such as burning fossil fuels for power, can have larger impacts at the regional level (e.g., acid rain) or the global level where we see the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide leading to rising temperatures. The results of the rising levels of carbon dioxide have different impacts on different localities. Coastal regions battle rising sea levels and the ground is shifting below Arctic communities as the permafrost melts. In order to appropriately understand and address complex issues like climate change, we need to examine it and devise solutions at multiple scales.


Map Scale

Moving from left to right, three examples of scale from a large scale map (local level with more details) to a smaller scale map (larger area).

acid rain
Noun

precipitation with high levels of nitric and sulfuric acids. Acid rain can be manmade or occur naturally.

Appalachian Mountains
Noun

large mountain range stretching from southeastern Canada to the southeastern United States.

Noun

region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.

border
Verb

to exist on the edge of a boundary.

Noun

line separating geographical areas.

carbon dioxide
Noun

greenhouse gas produced by animals during respiration and used by plants during photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is also the byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

cartographic
Adjective

having to do with maps and mapmaking.

city
Noun

large settlement with a high population density.

climate
Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Noun

gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

coastal
Adjective

relating to the land near a shore.

concept
Noun

idea.

counterintuitive
Adjective

against what someone would expect.

country
Noun

geographic territory with a distinct name, flag, population, boundaries, and government.

Noun

political unit smaller than a state or province, but typically larger than a city, town, or other municipality.

cultural characteristic
Noun

feature of an area or population that identifies it. Cultural characteristics are often defined as food, language, art, clothing, religion and holidays.

Noun

our planet, the third from the Sun. The Earth is the only place in the known universe that supports life.

economic
Adjective

having to do with money.

encompass
Verb

to enclose or form a circle around.

environment
Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

essential
Adjective

needed.

formal region
Noun

area defined by the same physical or cultural characteristics.

fossil fuel
Noun

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.

functional region
Noun

area defined by its ties to a central place of population and human activity.

fundamental
Adjective

basic or primary.

geographer
Noun

person who studies places and the relationships between people and their environments.

Noun

study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

global
Adjective

worldwide.

Noun

connection of different parts of the world resulting in the expansion of international cultural, economic, and political activities.

government
Noun

system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

graphic scale
Noun

way of relating distance on a map by use of a bar scale that looks like a ruler.

highway
Noun

large public road.

implement
Verb

to carry out plans.

interconnected
Adjective

connected with one another.

Noun

the geographic features of a region.

local
Adjective

having to do with the area around a specific place.

Noun

symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

metropolitan area
Noun

region surrounding a central city and has at least 15 percent of its residents working in the central city.

mountain range
Noun

series or chain of mountains that are close together.

Noun

political unit made of people who share a common territory.

pattern
Noun

arrangement of people, places, or things across a specific space.

perceptual region
Noun

area of Earth identified by history, attitude, and ideas, such as the Middle East.

Noun

permanently frozen layer of the Earth's surface.

physical features
Noun

naturally occurring geographic characteristics.

precise
Adjective

exact.

Noun

division of a country larger than a town or county.

public policy
Noun

course of actions, beliefs, and laws taken by a government having to do with a specific issue or concern.

ratio
Noun

relationship between numbers or numerical values.

regional geography
Noun

branch of geography devoted to the study of characteristics of a specific region.

Sahara Desert
Noun

world's largest desert, in north Africa.

scale
Noun

distinctive relative size, extent, or degree.

scale bar
Noun

ruler that shows the equivalence of inches or centimeters on a map to feet or other units of distance in the real world.

Noun

base level for measuring elevations. Sea level is determined by measurements taken over a 19-year cycle.

state
Noun

political unit in a nation, such as the United States, Mexico, or Australia.

topography
Noun

study of the shape of the surface features of an area.

town
Noun

human settlement larger than a village and smaller than a city.

Noun

beliefs, customs, and cultural characteristics handed down from one generation to the next.

trait
Noun

characteristic or aspect.

unique
Adjective

one of a kind.

vegetation
Noun

all the plant life of a specific place.

verbal scale
Noun

sentence or phrase that relates distance on a map to distance on Earth.

wealth
Noun

amount of money or other valuable materials.