Earth Science Week Classroom Activities

Exploring Color Maps


Activity Source:

NASA. Adapted with permission.

Blue landmasses? Green clouds? Red ice shelves? Maybe you’ve seen a colorful map and said to yourself, that’s not how it looks in real life!

A color-mapped image may have puzzling colors like these because scientists used different colors to represent data. Color is one of the tools that scientists use to visualize data about complex phenomena, from storm intensity to land surface temperature or the heights of underwater geologic formations.

To do this, scientists map data to a specific color scale they design. You can usually find this scale at the bottom of a map in a legend that explains the values represented by each color. This helps users not only interpret a lot of information, but also effectively understand findings and discoveries.

The Ozone Hole poster used in this activity brings together colorful images of over 30 years of satellite observations of the ozone hole. Once you understand the meaning of the color scale, you can interpret the colors on the globes and see how the ozone hole has changed over time.


  • Computer with Internet access
  • Color printer and paper
  • Colored pencils or crayons


  1. To download the Ozone Hole poster and for the full instructions of this activity in English and Spanish, visit To print, you may want to download The Ozone Hole Booklet, which features all of the content from the back of the poster as a printable booklet.

  2. Through this activity, create your own color map and learn how to interpret data in a color-mapped image. In the extension activity, learn to evaluate color scales of sea surface temperature data — and discover how selecting a good color scale is essential to both understanding data and communicating science.

For more NASA classroom activities on mapping, go to