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Appalachian Student Maps the World

johnson.jpgby Jane Nicholson

BOONE–Matt Johnson knows the world like the back of his hand. paths.jpgThe Appalachian State University junior creates maps for the weekly Geography in the News column written by Geography Professor Neal Lineback and distributed by to public school teachers and regional newspapers.

Johnson, a geography and geographic information systems major from North Wilkesboro, also has created a map of Afghanistan and its neighboring countries. It is being sent to newspapers across the state.

Perry and Sue Johnson knew long before their son did that maps would probably play a part in his future. He was the “navigator” on family vacations.

Johnson saw firsthand how geographical features help define an area on family trips to Canada, Colorado, Wyoming and points in between.

“I like to see how the mountain ranges relate to the location I’m in,” he said of the physical feature maps, maps showing mountains and mountain ranges, which are his favorite.

Johnson’s map of Afghanistan focuses on the area’s terrain. “The elevations show a lot about how rugged the area is,” he said. “It’s an easy place for terrorist to hide,” he said of the terrain. “It is so mountainous that you can’t get there easily.” Maps are playing a key role in newspaper and television reports about Afghanistan and the surrounding region. According to Lineback, the country has mountain ranges towering more than 24,000 feet. Afghanistan’s rugged topography is one reason the country has never been conquered.

“Maps can give us a geographic image of what’s occurring that transcends a verbal description,” Lineback said. “This kind of image shows relationships — where things are in relation to other things and distances between places — that help us draw conclusions that wouldn’t be apparent from reading alone.”

Drawing from resources on the Internet, Johnson found a map created by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. NIMA’s map, however, showed only the country’s valleys and mountains.

Using mapmaking software such as Arc\View, Arc\Info and Macromedia Freehand,

Johnson added country borders, rivers and roads. He also added lakes, major cities and airports. The finished product took about 12 hours to complete.

Johnson interned this summer with, a Santa Barbara, Calif., firm that serves business, education and consumer needs and creates maps used in textbooks, phone directories, and the Internet.

Johnson worked on historical atlases of Texas, California, the United States and the world.

His goal is to combine a love of travel, the outdoors and mapmaking to secure a job with National Geographic Society’s maps division, Trails Illustrated. Odds are he’ll get the chance. Currently three Appalachian graduates work for the Evergreen, Colo.-based operation, making tearproof and waterproof topographical maps used by hikers worldwide.

Other Appalachian geography graduates are working for ESRI Inc., a GIS company that produces maps for the military, planning agencies and tax offices, among others.

Lori Felix Shienvold, a 1997 master’s degree graduate in geography, spent several days in New York City with others from ESRI assisting the emergency operation centers to support a 24-hour mapping center in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They produced maps around the clock for policemen, firemen, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, newspapers, the Web and others.