The Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 8, 1998
September 8, 1998
VOL. 27, NO. 42


Unusual Web site puts APL on the map

Space Department's Sterner gives bird's-eye view of U.S. to 1,500 visitors a day

By Ben Walker
Applied Physics Laboratory

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

It started as a computing challenge. Working with U.S. Geological Survey elevation data for 60-by-60-mile areas, Ray Sterner (pictured at left) of the Applied Physics Laboratory's Space Department pieced together a black-and-white, 3-D shaded relief map of the United States. That was four years ago.

Today, working after hours and at home, Sterner presides over a Web page that gives viewers a full-color relief map of the United States and of each individual state. Also, there are a satellite image of each state, links to state-related sites, and viewer-written commentaries on state features such as weather and interesting tourist attractions. And for history buffs, Sterner has thrown in an 1895 state map.

The site,, is drawing 1,500 hits a day--more than 1 million hits since it went online in May 1995.

More than 1,000 remote sites--including those of schools, universities, companies, other countries and the National Geographic Society--now offer links back to Sterner's "Color Landform Atlas of the United States." His site has won several excellence awards, including the Magellan 4 Star Site award, given by Excite Inc.

"I get requests to use my maps and other data almost every day," Sterner says. "The only thing I require is that the use will not reflect negatively on the lab and that the user includes our copyright."

Besides finding its way into textbooks, information from Sterner's Web site has been put to several unique uses:

  • A Canadian adventurer at Web site is using the maps to track his four-year kayak trip down the West Coast, through Central America and back up the East Coast to Canada.

  • When the Red River flooded Fargo, N.D., in 1997, Sterner supplied satellite images and helped a local geology professor create a home page to keep citizens informed about the flood's status and to provide tips on cleaning up.

  • His maps have been used to illustrate Wyatt Earp Speaks, a book published earlier this year; plot the location of all Catholic cemeteries in the state of Washington; and pinpoint the location of bristlecone pine trees, which at nearly 5,000 years old are the oldest known continuously living things on Earth. The bristlecone Web site is

    Sterner is using a $1,000 grant from the Maryland Space Grant Consortium to produce 500 copies of his Web site on CD-ROM for commercial sale. He says he'll use the proceeds to buy more disk space so that other people at APL can create educational Web pages on topics of their interest.