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There are many ways to create a 3D Earth that is rotatable (see here, here, related here), but most of them have some drawbacks. These issues mainly stem from either CountryData or the fact that 3D shapes are not easy to handle. How can one efficiently overcome these problems? How to create a 3D rotateable, high-resolution-textured or polyon-based, fast-response, good-looking Earth?


Specific problem to solve: Given a 3D Earth, how can a 2D plot be layered on the surface such that only those parts of the plot appear that are above continents?

In other words: How to plot a species' distribution over the globe? My present method is quite tedious and is really slow. It involves the creation of a continent-texture map, the rasterization of some random distribution patches (any will suffice, mine is taken from here), some image-processing algorithm to color the intersection of continents and the distribution (as Mathematica lacks proper polygon-intersection tools at the moment), and projecting the result over the sphere. This has various problems apart from slowness (see below the example). Following is a test-creature that was obliterated from the Italian Peninsula.

Mathematica graphics

Here I list the methods known to me to create the globe, and their shortcomings:

1. Make a 3D wireframe from polygon data

Extract 2D polygon data for each country & continent from CountryData, convert them to 3D and project coordinates to a sphere. Issues:

  • looks ugly if only "SchematicPolygon"-s are used (too few points)
  • too much computation if "FullPolygon"-s are used (too many points)
  • edge transparency slows down interactive manipulation terribly, though for aesthetics, it is needed sometimes
  • no perfect way to put a sphere under the wireframe to prevent see-through, or to put e.g. a vegetation map texture to go with the vector-country-borders (see next)
  • no easy way to make countries filled polygons, as it either creates artefacts (fill goes out of boundary, unclosed polygons, etc.) or interferes with sphere surface (if present under the wireframe), as polygons are not bent according to the curvature of the globe.


mapData = CountryData[#, "SchematicPolygon"] & /@ 
   Flatten[CountryData /@ CountryData["Continents"]];
SC[{lat_, lon_}] := {Cos[lon \[Degree]] Cos[lat \[Degree]], 
   Sin[lon \[Degree]] Cos[lat \[Degree]], Sin[lat \[Degree]]};
mapDataSphere = 
  Flatten@(mapData /. n : {_Real, _Real} :> SC@Reverse@n);
Graphics3D[{Hue[.58, .1, 1], FaceForm@White, 
  EdgeForm@{GrayLevel@.4, AbsoluteThickness@1.5}, mapDataSphere}, 
 ImageSize -> 300, Boxed -> False]

Mathematica graphics

2. Make a texture bitmap and project it onto a sphere

Create a high-resolution 2D map of the world, and apply it to e.g. SphericalPlot3D. It produces a globe that can be rotated quite easily, though it has other issues:

  • By using textures, one looses all the advantages of vector graphics. For example any change to the surface map involves image processing (i.e. layering a species' distribution over the continents), which is usually slow, especially for textures of high resolution.
  • The resolution of the texture map does not seem to be used for its full extent, as the applied texture looks less crisp than the original 2D map.
  • SphericalPlot3D produces artefacts (holes in the surface, weird shadow at boundary)
  • If the texture map is not rasterized before, it produces artefacts (see lines across North America)


mapData = 
  CountryData[#, "FullPolygon"] & /@ 
   Flatten[CountryData /@ CountryData["Continents"]];    
map = Graphics[{White, EdgeForm@{Gray, AbsoluteThickness@0}, mapData},
        ImageSize -> 2000, PlotRangePadding -> 0, 
       PlotRange -> {{-180, 180}, {-90, 90}}, 
       Background -> Hue[.58, .1, 1]];
SphericalPlot3D[1, {u, 0, Pi}, {v, 0, 2 Pi}, 
     TextureCoordinateFunction -> ({#5 + .5, 1 - #4} &), 
     PlotStyle -> Texture@map, SphericalRegion -> True, Axes -> False, 
     Boxed -> False, Lighting -> "Neutral", Mesh -> False, 
     PlotRangePadding -> 0, RotationAction -> "Clip", ImageSize -> 300]

Mathematica graphics

Various artefacts in Mark's answer, when zoomed on to the South Pole:

Mathematica graphics

Note polygon spiral-lines (polygon issue, can be cured by rasterization); low resolution (can be increased, but not to a level when zooming on like this does not reveal pixels); the alignment issue at the surface boundary (thin blue line pointing to the pole) due to 3D plotting; and the blue point right at the pole (projection issue).

3. Simulate 3D with high-resolution bitmap in 2D

This is a hypothetic way I haven't tried. First, create a large bitmap of the world. Tile the space periodically with it, and use an orthographic projection to simulate a 3D sphere-like lens effect whenever the map is dragged by the mouse. By this way 3D can be simulated in 2D. Could be faster than the texture mapped sphere.

Texture map issues

Why is it that many geographic features are not shown consistently by CountryData? I would assume this returns a full world map, but I guess since Antarctica is not a sovereign country, it is omitted:

Graphics[CountryData[#, "SchematicPolygon"] & /@ CountryData[All], ImageSize -> 400]

Mathematica graphics

But I cannot explain the missing features of the second plot below (e.g. Alaska). How come that the "Polygon" specification, that is supposed to be more detailed than "SchematicPolygon", is actually missing features the other has?

Graphics[CountryData[#, "SchematicPolygon"] & /@ CountryData["Continents"], ImageSize -> 400],
Graphics[CountryData[#, "Polygon"] & /@ CountryData["Continents"], ImageSize -> 400]

Mathematica graphics

share|improve this question
I've extended the scope of the question as it seems to generate more useful answers. If you think the new stuff should rather go to a completely new post, please say so. –  István Zachar Mar 29 '12 at 3:01
To avoid the strange spirals I used: Texture[Rasterize[pic, ImageSize -> 1500]] instead of Show in Mark's code. –  FJRA Mar 29 '12 at 16:10
Can you make the data describing your region available? –  Mark McClure Apr 24 '12 at 1:18
While I'm a huge proponent of OPs editing their question to update with more info, here, the question went from 1) "What's the logic behind CountryData" to 2) "How to make a 3D globe" to now 3) "Plot geographic data over a 3D globe" over the course of a month! I think this is excessive— questions should be updated with info, not changed in scope! It makes Fx's and FJRA's answers look completely out of place. It's also on the verge of being bumped to CW, for those who care. I think that this should've been 3 separate questions or one well thought out question. It's too late to do anything now –  rm -rf Apr 24 '12 at 1:52
@R.M Yes, I agree with you, though on the other hand, I did feel that they are heavily intertwined issues: I've tried many things, and realized that if I change e.g. the method of graphics-intersection then I have to change the method of projection as well. And to be honest, when I posted this thing weeks ago I had the intention to post exactly the question I asked yesterday. But since I was way behind my idea, I had to do my research in the meantime. I know that it is now a complex issue, that's why I've tried to soften the blow with the bounty. –  István Zachar Apr 24 '12 at 9:54
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4 Answers

up vote 36 down vote accepted

I'm posting this as a second answer, as it's really a completely different approach. It's also been substantially expanded as of April 25, 2012. While this still doesn't specifically address the question of adding a region, it does plot the countries separately. Of course, each country could be viewed as a region in itself.

Our objective is to make a good, genuine 3D globe. We prefer not to use a texturized parametric plot, for then we we'll have distortion at the poles and no access to the graphics primitives making the image.

It's quite easy to project data given as (lat,lng) pairs onto a sphere using GeoPosition and related functions (or even just the standard parametrization of a sphere). However, the SchematicPolygon returned by CountryData are of insufficient resolution to generate a truly nice image while the FullPolygons are so detailed that the resulting 3D object is clunky to interact with. Furthermore, non-convex 3D polygons tend to render poorly in Mathematica with the fill leaking out.

Our solution is two-fold. First, we simplify the FullPolygons to a manageable but still detailed level. Second, we triangulate the resulting polygons before projecting onto the sphere. Note that we use a third party program called triangle for the triangulation. Once installed, however, the procedure can be carried out entirely within Mathematica using the Run command.

Polyline simplification

Here are the Schematic and Full Polygons returned by CountryData for Britain, known for it's complicated coastline. Note that the FullPolygon consists of nearly 4000 total points, while the SchematicPolygon has only 26.

pts[0] = First[CountryData["UnitedKingdom", "SchematicPolygon"]];
pts[1] = First[CountryData["UnitedKingdom", "FullPolygon"]];
Total /@ Map[Length, {pts[0], pts[1]}, {2}]

{26, 3924}

In order to plot a nice image that is easy to interact with, we've really got to reduce the number of points in the FullPolygon. A standard algorithm for reducing points while maintaining the integrity of the line is the Douglas-Peucker algorithm. Here is an implementation in Mathematica:

dist[q : {x_, y_}, {p1 : {x1_, y1_}, p2 : {x2_, y2_}}] := With[
   {u = (q - p1).(p2 - p1)/(p2 - p1).(p2 - p1)},
    u <= 0, Norm[q - p1],
    u >= 1, Norm[q - p2],
    True, Norm[q - (p1 + u (p2 - p1))]
testSeg[seg[points_List], tol_] := Module[{dists, max, pos},
    dists = dist[#, {points[[1]], points[[-1]]}] & /@ 
      points[[Range[2, Length[points] - 1]]];
    max = Max[dists];
    If[max > tol,
     pos = Position[dists, max][[1, 1]] + 1;
     {seg[points[[Range[1, pos]]]], 
      seg[points[[Range[pos, Length[points]]]]]},
     seg[points, done]]] /; Length[points] > 2;
testSeg[seg[points_List], tol_] := seg[points, done];
testSeg[seg[points_List, done], tol_] := seg[points, done];
dpSimp[points_, tol_] := 
  Append[First /@ First /@ Flatten[{seg[points]} //. 
       s_seg :> testSeg[s, tol]], Last[points]];

Let's illustrate with the coast of Britain. The second parameter is a tolerance; a smaller tolerance yields a better approximation but uses more points. The implementation doesn't like the first and last points to be the same, hence we use Most. Finally, we can toss out parts that yield just two points after simplification, since they will be very small.

pts[2] = Select[dpSimp[Most[#],0.1]& /@ pts[1], Length[#]>2&];
Total[Length /@ pts[2]]


The result has only 341 total points. Let's look at the mainland.

  Polygon[First[pts[i]]]}, ImageSize -> 200],

enter image description here

Our simplified polygon uses only 158 points for mainland Britain to yield an approximation that should look good on a globe.


Triangulation is an extremely important topic in computational geometry and still a topic in current research. Our topic here illustrates it's importance in computer graphics; it is also very important in the numerical solution of PDEs. It is surprisingly hard to do well in full generality. (Consider, for example, that our simplified polygons are not guaranteed to be simple, i.e. they may and probably do self-intersect.) Unfortunately, Mathematica doesn't have a built in triangulation procedure as of V8. Rather than start from scratch, I've written a little interface to the freely available program called triangle: http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~quake/triangle.html

Installing triangle on a unix based system, like Mac OS X, was easy enough for me - though, it does require some facility with C compilation. I don't know about Windows. Once you've got it set up to run from the command line, we can access it easily enough through Mathematica's Run command by reading and writing triangle files. Let's illustrate with the boundary of Britain again.

Triangle represents polygons using poly files. The following code writes a sequence of points to a stream in poly file format.

toPolyFile[strm_, pts : {{_, _} ..}] := Module[{},
   WriteString[strm, ToString[Length[pts]] <> " 2 0 0\n"];
      ToString[First[#2]] <> " " <>
       ToString[First[#]] <> " " <>
        ToString[Last[#]] <> "\n"] &, pts];
   WriteString[strm, ToString[Length[pts]] <> " 0\n"];
     ToString[i] <> " " <> ToString[Mod[i - 1, Length[pts], 1]] <> 
      " " <> ToString[i] <> "\n"],
    {i, 1, Length[pts]}];
   WriteString[strm, "0"]

For example, we can write poly files for the british coast approximations as follows.

  strm = OpenWrite["BritishCoast"<>ToString[i]<>".poly"];

We'll triangulate using the following command.

$triangleCmd = "/Users/mmcclure/Documents/triangle/triangle -pq ";

Here's the actual triangulation step.


This produces new poly files as well as node and ele files. These can be read back in and translated to GraphicsComplexs.

triangleFilesToComplex[fileName_String, itNumber_:1] := 
  Module[{pts, triangles, edges, data},
   data = Import[fileName <> "." <> ToString[itNumber] <> ".node",  "Table"];
   pts = #[[{2, 3}]] & /@ data[[2 ;; -2]];
   data = Import[fileName <> "." <> ToString[itNumber] <> ".ele", "Table"];
   triangles = Rest /@ data[[2 ;; -2]];
   data = Import[fileName <> "." <> ToString[itNumber] <> ".poly", "Table"];
   edges = #[[{2, 3}]] & /@ data[[3 ;; -3]];
   GraphicsComplex[pts, {
     {White, EdgeForm[{Black,Thin}], Polygon[triangles]},
     {Thick, Black, Line[edges]}}]]

Here's the result.

{i,0,2}], ImageSize -> 600]

enter image description here

The Globe

OK, let's put this all together to generate the globe. The procedure will generate a huge number of files, so let's set up a directory in which to store them. (Unix specific)

If[FileNames["CountryPolys"] === {},
  Run["mkdir CountryPolys"],
  Run["rm CountryPolys/*.poly CountryPolys/*.node CountryPolys/*.ele"]

The next command is analogous to the toPolyFile command above, but accepts a country name as a string, generates poly files for all the large enough sub-parts, and triangulates them.

$triangleCmd = "/Users/mmcclure/Documents/triangle/triangle -pq ";
    triangulateCountryPoly[country_String] := 
      Module[{multiPoly, strm, fileName, len, fp},
       fp = First[CountryData[country, "FullPolygon"]];
       multiPoly = Select[dpSimp[Most[#], 0.2] & /@ fp, Length[#] > 2 &];
       len = Length[multiPoly];
        fileName = "CountryPolys/" <> country <> ToString[i] <> ".poly";
        strm = OpenWrite[fileName];
        toPolyFile[strm, multiPoly[[i]]];
        Run[$triangleCmd <> fileName], 
    {i, 1, len}];

Next, we need a command to read in a triangulated country (consisting of potentially many polygons) and store the result in a GraphicsComplex.

toComplex3D[country_String] := 
  Module[{len, pts, pts3D, ptCnts, triangles, edges, data},
    len = 
       "CountryPolys/" <> country ~~ NumberString ~~ ".1.poly"]];
    pts = Table[
      data = 
         "CountryPolys/" <> country <> ToString[i] <> ".1.node", 
         "Table"], Throw[country]];
      #[[{2, 3}]] & /@ data[[2 ;; -2]], {i, 1, len}];
    ptCnts = Prepend[Accumulate[Length /@ pts], 0];
    pts = Flatten[pts, 1];
    triangles = Flatten[Table[
       data = 
          "CountryPolys/" <> country <> ToString[i] <> ".1.ele", 
          "Table"], Throw[country]];
       ptCnts[[i]] + Rest /@ data[[2 ;; -2]], {i, 1, len}], 1];
    edges = Flatten[Table[
       data = 
          "CountryPolys/" <> country <> ToString[i] <> ".1.poly", 
          "Table"], Throw[country]];
       ptCnts[[i]] + (#[[{2, 3}]] & /@ data[[3 ;; -3]]), {i, 1, len}],
    pts3D = 
     Map[Normalize[First[GeoPositionXYZ[GeoPosition[Reverse[#]]]]] &, 
     {{EdgeForm[], ColorData["DarkTerrain"][Random[]], 
      {Line[edges]}}, VertexNormals -> pts3D]

OK, let's do it.

countries = Prepend[CountryData[All], "Antarctica"];
triangulateCountryPoly /@ countries; // AbsoluteTiming

{77.350341, Null}

complexes = toComplex3D /@ countries; // AbsoluteTiming

{94.657840, Null}

globe = Graphics3D[{
  {ColorData["Aquamarine"][3], Sphere[{0, 0, 0}, 0.99]}, complexes},
  Lighting -> "Neutral", Boxed -> False]

enter image description here

share|improve this answer
This is a promising approach! Could you please tell something about the performance of the FullPolygon-ed globe, whether it is fast to rotate, or does it lag? –  István Zachar Mar 30 '12 at 17:43
@Istvan The FullPolygon version is rotatable, but barely. It's jerky and has crashed my computer twice in four tries. The compressed Graphics3D object is 32Mb. If you really need something finer than SchematicPolygons, then you could possibly take the FullPolygons and run them through a point reduction algorithm. The problem there is that it can be difficult to preserve the topological properties, i.e. the polygon may end up intersecting itself. –  Mark McClure Mar 30 '12 at 19:13
Mark, does the PolygonTriangulation work? Will you include full code to use it if it does? –  Mr.Wizard Apr 9 '12 at 0:21
@Mr.Wizard I've not tried that package. I'd be a bit surprised though if it does work. The obvious polygon to try it on is First[CountryData["Norway", "Coordinates"]]. –  Mark McClure Apr 9 '12 at 21:03
@Istvan Please see the massive re-write. –  Mark McClure Apr 25 '12 at 16:48
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Well, you’ve clearly established that they’re no set–subset relationship between SchematicPolygon and Polygon. One can only speculate as to why that is, but the fact remains that this behaviour of Polygon is documented: “Main boundaries [i.e. Polygon] exclude entities such as outlying islands and dependencies.”

enter image description here

It is desirable at least for some purposes to have a polygon of the mainland of a country, e.g. to avoid spreading a country’s color to its overseas islands and make the map less readable. Also, to be able to plot the country on a local basis, as a connected set (if you don't draw the rest of the world).

share|improve this answer
Well said. As the included documentation shows, the OP should use "FullPolygon". –  Sjoerd C. de Vries Mar 28 '12 at 21:20
@Sjoerd: that is a bit slow when you are doing a rotatable globe or a high-resolution interactive map. –  István Zachar Mar 28 '12 at 21:32
@IstvánZachar It takes 0.6 secs on my laptop to generate a picture. You just Rasterize it and put it on a globe without trouble. –  Sjoerd C. de Vries Mar 28 '12 at 21:56
@Sjourd: would that give high-resolution texture over the sphere in e.g. SphericalPlot3D for you? In my experience, it doesn't. –  István Zachar Mar 28 '12 at 23:14
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"Antarctica" is part of CountryData, but it is not returned by CountryData[All], and it's only returned by CountryData["Continents"].

If you want quick graphics (including country borders) you should use:

Graphics[{EdgeForm[{Green, Thin}], 
  CountryData[#, "SchematicPolygon"] & /@ 
   Flatten@{CountryData[All], "Antarctica"}}, ImageSize -> 400]

Or in 3D:

    Thin}], (CountryData[#, "SchematicPolygon"] & /@ 
       "Antarctica"}) /. (a : {_?NumericQ, _?NumericQ} :> 
share|improve this answer
Thanks FJRA. My problem with the 3D version is that there are artefacts like excess polygon-parts, e.g. at the southern border of Australia. –  István Zachar Mar 28 '12 at 23:14
@IstvánZachar - surely you mean the southern coast of Australia? :) –  Verbeia Mar 29 '12 at 3:31
@Verbeia: Do polygons have coasts? :) The World is just a GraphicsComplex object for me, and we all are living on the 2D projection of a 3D surface of a n-brane of a... –  István Zachar Mar 29 '12 at 16:26
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This is not a direct response to the question but rather a response to Istvan's comment to FJRA answer. As Istvan points out, the 3D globe has "artefacts like excess polygon-parts". An alternative approach is to use ParametricPlot3D together with a 2D map as a texture. Here's the result.

countries = Table[{ColorData["DarkTerrain"][Random[]],
    CountryData[country, {"FullPolygon", "Equirectangular"}]},
   {country, Append[CountryData[], "Antarctica"]}];
parallels = 
    Table[{lng, lat}, {lng, -180, 180, 5}], {lat, -60, 80, 10}]];
meridians = 
    Table[{lng, lat}, {lat, -65, 85, 5}], {lng, -180, 180, 10}]];
cmp = {{Opacity[0.4], meridians, parallels}, {EdgeForm[Black], 
pic = Graphics[cmp, 
   Background -> Lighter[ColorData["Aquamarine"][1], 0.5],
   PlotRangePadding -> None];
ParametricPlot3D[{Cos[u] Sin[v], Sin[u] Sin[v], Cos[v]} ,
 {u, 0, 2 Pi}, {v, 0, Pi}, Mesh -> None, PlotPoints -> 100,
 TextureCoordinateFunction -> ({#4, 1 - #5} &), Boxed -> False,
 PlotStyle -> Texture[Show[pic, ImageSize -> 1000]],
 Lighting -> "Neutral", Axes -> False, RotationAction -> "Clip",
 ViewPoint -> {-2.026774, 2.07922, 1.73753418},
 ImageSize -> 300]

enter image description here

share|improve this answer
Strange artefacts around the poles. Rasterizing the texture map helps though. –  István Zachar Mar 29 '12 at 3:08
I agree. In many ways this approach is necessarily unsatisfying, as it depends upon a map projection which must distort the globe. This distorted version is then mapped back on to the globe. Ultimately, a pure 3D approach would be desirable. I just don't know how to deal with the other issues you raised in that context. –  Mark McClure Mar 29 '12 at 3:32
It is very nice! +1. –  FJRA Mar 29 '12 at 3:46
You're drawing one meridian twice (180 deg == -180 deg). This gives a double line on my globe. Shouldn't be visible actually, but it is. –  Sjoerd C. de Vries Mar 29 '12 at 21:52
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