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These beautiful maps tell a complex story about how land is used across the US

Maps are often packed full of all sorts of information. But sometimes the simplest maps can tell you a complex story.

This map, for instance — made by designer Michael Pecirno as part of his Minimal Maps series — shows every urbanized location in the continental US, according to data from the Department of Agriculture:

cities map

While the locations of big cities aren't a surprise, a close look at the map reveals all sorts of interesting development patterns, such as the rows of small towns strung along interstates in the Midwest, the absolute lack of development across huge stretches of the West, and the emerging Southeast megalopolis stretching from Atlanta to Raleigh.

This map, meanwhile, shows the extent of deciduous forest — that is, trees that lose their leaves during the winter:

forest map

(Michael Pecirno)

These trees once formed an uninterrupted forest that filled nearly the entire US east of the Mississippi River, but around 30 percent of it has been cleared since 1600, both for lumber and to open up land for farming. In some places, though — like New England — forest has recently made a bit of a comeback, as rural areas have lost population to cities and some farms have been abandoned.

Here's a map of corn grown throughout the US — one of the main crops planted on the terrain where the forests once stood:

corn map

(Michael Pecirno)

Corn dominates Midwest states like Illinois and Iowa, in particular, but there are pockets of it in nearly every state. And apart from forest, cornfields have also displaced grasslands:

grasslands map

(Michael Pecirno)

One of the fascinating things about all these maps is how they reflect both environmental factors and human land-use decisions. The grasslands map, for instance, shows the places where temperatures and precipitation levels are right for grasslands to form — but these variables can't explain the sharp boundary visible between corn-heavy Iowa and the slightly more grassland-rich Missouri.

Head over to Michael Pecirno's Minimal Maps series to see more.

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