The U.S. is often thought of as a nation connected by roads—since the 1960s the Interstate Highway has defined American culture and led to untold economic prosperity. But a new map of the nation’s rivers tells a very different story.
The map of all the nation’s rivers and waterways was constructed by California-based software engineer Nelson Minar, who mined information from the National Hydography Dataset and plotted the data using GIS mapping software.
The result is a meticulous and breath-taking picture of the U.S. that resembles a close-up of a leaf, with veins stretching out from the center to the tips of the blades.
In an interview with Wired Magazine, Minar claims he was only having a little fun. “The single All Rivers map was just me goofing around to see what it’d look like.”
But in comparison to other hydrography maps, Minar’s still has a long ways to go.
“To be a useful hydrography map, it should have information on river volume, size, seasonality, etc,” he said to Wired. “That’s a lot of data to cram into a single picture. I don’t know how to do that and make it look good.”
Nelson Minar's GIS map of all the rivers in the U.S.
Inspired by Ben Fry’s All Streets project, Minar’s map calls into question many of the common perceptions about the geography of the U.S.
According to Minar’s data, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona are hardly desert states while much of the American heartland appears virtually riverless.
Unfortunately for some, Minar was unable to plot any rivers in Alaska or Hawaii because the data set he was using, NHDPlus, only applies to the lower 48.
If anything, this map visualizes what Mark Twain could only put into words in his autobiography Life on the Mississippi (1883): “The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels…almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.”
If only Twain were alive to see this.
For more details, visit Minar’s page on Github.