I have recently discovered pgfplots and I love it. I'm converting the figures from my thesis to pgfplots, or at least the ones I have made myself. One of my figures is a map that I created using the Matlab Mapping Toolbox. I'd love to convert it to LaTeX + pgfplots, but I feel like I don't really have the tools. For mapping, one would need:

  • A projection, e.g. to convert from GIS coordinates to lat/lon (or UTM/UPS, or ...). This should be possible to build on top of the existing mathematical engine. Equirectangular projections are easiest. Preferably quite integrated, so one can use it as a coordinate system, such as (axis latlon:30.0,40.0).
  • Something to keep track of scale, e.g. a scale-ruler would be quite nice to add directly.
  • Anything else?

So far I used Matlab but I am not too happy about the result. Did anybody ever try to hack something like this together?

example of a map of the Kiruna region

(This should be a community wiki question, but I don't see any button to mark it as such, maybe I don't have the reputation?)

  • I am a power user of Robust Control Toolbox and I feel your pain :) I think, doing the math and converting your data to lat/lon in MATLAB is a better way. You can then make pgfplots read off your data from an external file. Are you going to use an external image for the background ?
    – percusse
    Commented Nov 24, 2011 at 15:17
  • No; I have plotted all myself. The background map data is from shapefiles from OpenStreetMap. The rest is my own. To do this in pgfplots, I would need to generate several hundred datafiles with coordinates for polygons and lines, read those, I'm not sure pgfplots is up to that. Or I could create a PDF without any text and write on top of that, so that at least the fonts would match the surrounding document. But for the scale-ruler that would be difficult. I'm often plotting maps in my field; usually (near)-global, starting with coastlines, then contours on top of that, etc...
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 24, 2011 at 15:28
  • Well, the second option is the specialty of Tikz anyway. So that would reduce the problem dramatically. For example see this question and its wonderful answers. Is this relevant for you to draw only the ellipsoids and everything else is flattened to the background? There are some options for the scaling also. You can obtain the exact size an draw on it with a relative length such that the scale gets scaled too.
    – percusse
    Commented Nov 24, 2011 at 15:35
  • That works for local maps like in this example, but for global maps the scaling depends on the position; e.g., a square (20N, 20E) (30N, 30E) is not a square on most map projections. I don't presently know enough about TikZ, pgfplots, and TeX to estimate if such projection code would be easy to add, or actually quite difficult. In my ML code I have for each ellipse and rectangle the position in lat/lon and the sizes in km, and from my user POV conversion to image coordinates are all hidden. It might be quite some hand-work to get them right, but I'd rather spend my time on a long-term solution
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 24, 2011 at 15:44
  • 1
    I'm looking for a solution to the general problem: xkcd.com/974
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 24, 2011 at 15:46

1 Answer 1


I've used PGFplots to generate some maps of a local area in the past, doing watershed calculations in GRASS and exporting the vectors as ASCII files, which can be plotted by PGFplots relatively easily. That only required an xy coordinate system (spatial extent of about 100 km by 100 km), and distortions were negligible.

As you noted, on a (near) global scale, things become more complicated, and plate caree is by far the easiest thing to start with.

Here's a very basic attempt to get started (I've been meaning to look into this for a while):

World map in equidistant rectangular (Plate Caree) projection, with Tissot's Indicatrix in blue, and the Bermuda Triangle shown in orange

The world map is part of the Gnuplot data: world.dat

By setting disabledatascaling in PGFplots, you can use normal coordinates instead of axis cs coordinates, and the scaling factors to convert between canvas coordinates and data coordinates will be available in \pgfplotunitxlength and \pgfplotsunitylength.

axis equal makes sure that the x and y unit lengths are the same.

I've written a key called scale circle, which you can add to the options of a \draw circle. The key will scale the x radius according to the latitude.

What this approach doesn't do is curve lines that don't follow longitudes or latitudes. I'm not sure what the best approach for this is, I'm guessing some to path magic (Andrew Stacey?), or an \addplot expression. I'll have a think about this.




\pgfmathsetmacro\kmAtEquator{36/4200} % Degree/km at equator
    scale circle/.code={
        \pgfmathsetmacro\xscale{\pgfkeysvalueof{/tikz/x radius}*1/cos(\y@coord/\pgfplotsunitylength)}
        \tikzset{/tikz/x radius=\xscale}
    scale bar/.code={
            insert path={
                node [
                ] {0} 
                +(0,-2pt) -- +(0,0) -- ++(#1*\xscale*\kmAtEquator,0) 
                node [
                    inner xsep=1pt,
                    label={[inner sep=0pt,font=\scriptsize]right:km}] {#1}
                -- +(0,-2pt)
    scale bar/.default=2000

    grid=both, ytick={-60,-30,...,90}, xtick={-180,-150,...,180},
    grid style=black!10,
    axis equal,
    scale only axis,
    disabledatascaling, clip=false

\addplot [] table {world.dat};

    \foreach \x in {-160,-120,...,160}{
        \foreach \y in {-75,-50,...,75}{
            \fill [cyan, opacity=0.25] (\x,\y) circle [radius=5, scale circle];
    \fill [orange] (-64.9,32.3)   -- (-66.1,18.5) node [anchor=mid west, inner sep=1pt, orange!75!black, fill=white, text opacity=1,fill opacity=0.75, align=left] {Bermuda\\Triangle} -- (-80.4,25.2)   -- cycle;
    \draw (185,0) [scale bar];
    \draw (185,45) [scale bar];
    \draw (185,60) [scale bar];

  • 1
    This helped me a lot with my geographic plots, @Jake! I have some remarks for future users: new data (at different scales) is available here, but rendering a part of the world (e.g. only North-America, at the 10m scale) is very slow from the full 10m data set. To solve this problem, I wrote a small Python script which allows you to crop the data set to keep only the part you need, to be found here.
    – Nelewout
    Commented Dec 23, 2017 at 17:38

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