Home > Public Domain Data > The National Atlas of the USA is Disappearing

The National Atlas of the USA is Disappearing

One of the most useful sites of the past 15 years for GIS users, in my judgment, has been the National Atlas of the United States.  It contains a “map maker” that allows you to create online maps of climate, ecoregions, population, crime, geology, and many other layers, and a “map layers” repository that houses all of the raster and vector data layers that are displayable in the map maker.  All of those hundreds of layers are downloadable in standard formats that are easy to use with GIS.

Sadly, the National Atlas is scheduled to disappear on 30 September 2014.  According to the transition FAQ, “the National Atlas and The National Map will transition into a combined single source for geospatial and cartographic information.  This transformation is projected to streamline access to maps, data and information from the USGS National Geospatial Program (NGP).  This action will prioritize our civilian mapping role and consolidate core investments while maintaining top-quality customer service.”  Thus, the National Map is scheduled to be the content delivery mechanism for the National Atlas content.

But, data users take note:  Not all of the National Atlas content is migrating to the National Map.  According to the FAQ’s question of “Will I still be able to find everything from the National Atlas on The National Map web site”, the answer is, “No. Most National Atlas products and services that were primarily intended for a broad public audience as well as thematic data contributions from outside the National Geospatial Program (NGP) will not be available from nationalmap.gov.”

I think this is most unfortunate news.  In my opinion, and that of many students and educators that I work with in courses and institutes, and the other data users I have worked with over the years, the National Map is almost as clunky and difficult to use as it was 10 years ago.  I use it frequently because it is still one of the richest sources of data, but it is by no means easy to obtain that data.  And equally importantly, it serves a different audience than the National Atlas does.   Yes, the National Atlas viewer is dated, but it requires little bandwidth, making it accessible to schools and other institutions contending with poor connectivity. How much effort is required just to leave national atlas alone and leave it online, with an understanding that it will not be updated?

In an era where more geospatial data are needed, not less, and improved geographic literacy is increasingly critical to education and society, the disappearance of the National Atlas seems like a giant step backward.

National Atlas website with Map Maker and just a few of the many data layers available.

National Atlas website with Map Maker and just a few of the many data layers available.

  1. Nathan Lowry
    July 8, 2014 at 3:16 pm


    The National Atlas was the only place to find a deliberately consolidated federal lands layer. Although dated and not highly granular, I’m not sure other options are much better. The GAP Analysis contains many but not all federal lands and may have significant boundary and inclusion issues. The US Census may not be as concerned about these areas but as exclusions for the Census and other surveys. Compiling from federal agencies is the highest quality option but requires much time and effort on the part of consumers.

    I sure hope a consolidation point of federal lands that derives from source (agency) boundaries becomes part of the essential products of the National Map. If not, I hope that A-16 responsibilities will help the Census to gather these as accurately as possible from other federal agencies into a consolidated layer that is kept current and its completeness and accuracy measured.

    Sincerely, Nathan Lowry
    GIS Outreach Coordinator
    Governor’s Office of Information Technology
    State of Colorado

  2. Philostrato
    August 29, 2019 at 7:34 pm

    Now it is 2019 and I am searching for any efforts to preserve the National Atlas data that is scheduled to be removed from the USGS website at the end of the year. Compared to new data, the collection is not impossibly large, and it ought to be publicly archived. Is there any such effort?

    • josephkerski
      August 29, 2019 at 7:55 pm

      Hello! Thanks for your interest and concern. SOME of the National Atlas data is on https://nationalmap.gov/small_scale/atlasftp.html But even this site, I’m told, will disappear soon. 😦 I have spoken with many at USGS about this but if you can help in these efforts, please make your voice heard. –Joseph Kerski

      • Philostrato
        August 30, 2019 at 12:21 am

        First of all, thank you. This is the first time I have reached out to the wider mapping community, so it is amazing to hear from you.

        I have already downloaded some datasets that are likely to be of use to me personally, but this squirrelish approach does not help someone who comes along five years from now. I don’t have an organization or a website or anything, so before we start from scratch, I’m wondering if there exists any site or group that collects this type of information. As for general-purpose sites, Wikimedia Commons already has low-resolution copies of the informational PDF maps from years ago, and could host the PDFs themselves. Archive.org does not appear to collect geographic information other than scanned maps.

        I know that Global Map was transferred to GitHub, so maybe that is an option.

        The bulk of the GIS data (where you linked) roughly totals 20 GB. Some of it is similar to or superseded by data from the U.S. Census Bureau and USDA and of course USGS, but it’s not the same. As you articulated in 2014, its greatest value is in ease of access. And so it seems that any effort to archive it should preserve that.

      • josephkerski
        August 30, 2019 at 1:58 pm

        Hello! Like you, I have downloaded some of it but as you pointed out, we really need a larger organization who will host it. Data.gov would seem the logical choice but honestly I sent them several notes about a data set that used to be there that I needed for the Spatial Reserves exercises, but is no longer there, and so I don’t hold out much hope that they would do it. I used Archive.org for hosting the sound files for a story map I made, so that is an interesting thought. Or one of the emerging geospatial data repositories at a university would be another good location, but only if it is maintained into the future and not languished when whatever faculty or grad student who works on it, departs. –Joseph Kerski

      • Philostrato
        September 2, 2019 at 4:07 am

        Huh, that is odd that Data.gov would bring together so much information and then toss it. But there is definitely a culture (I mean nationally, I don’t know about these agencies) of starving a government service rather than ending or expanding it. And I’ve noticed that helpful-looking university links go dead with the exact timeframe/reason you stated. A university repository sounds great though, I’m just not familiar with any in particular. I’ll look into GitHub, or maybe it’s even worth contacting some of these other places that don’t currently host geographic data, considering how many people are starting to get into it (like me).

      • josephkerski
        September 3, 2019 at 2:50 am

        Indeed; thanks for your efforts here! The long-term viability of ANY site on line, especially one having to do with something as rapidly changing as GIS, is a challenge. But as you know, spatial data – including historical data – will only increase in value as time goes on… and as such needs to be preserved and kept in a format that people can actually USE. –Joseph Kerski

  1. July 6, 2014 at 11:38 pm

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