Imaginary Mapmaking Utility
May 26, 2020 9:39 PM   Subscribe

Is there a program -- free or paid -- that allows you to basically draw an imaginary landmass and plop some mountains on it and then will tell you "what's the climate downwind of these mountains" or "where does it snow and rain on this landmass"? Smashing tectonic plates together to get volcanoes and mountains would also be nice.

Just kinda want to experiment with making biomes etc. based of landmasses, and two of my kids are studying biomes right now so I feel like it'd be extra-educational for them, as well as fun for me. I'm finding lots of utilities for drawing maps that bear no relation to reality, but I want to be able to realistically smash landmasses into each other and see how mountains affect things downwind and so on!
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (Like, it'd be AMAZING if I could draw rough analogues of their minecraft maps and have CLIMATE happen.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:40 PM on May 26, 2020

SimEarth did this but I’m not sure how you’d play it today!
posted by mdonley at 10:19 PM on May 26, 2020

That is a fascinating idea but you need the whole rest of the planet to know why the climate is as it is. Your new mountains direct winds to dump their water, but what determined how strong and wet the winds were? Etc. I mean, even our own little planet has had massive glaciations and iceless ages even since the development of life, so "where does it snow and rain on this landmass" depends on history as well as the rest of the current biogeochemogeography.

Not that that isn’t doable, but it isn’t trivial.
posted by clew at 11:39 PM on May 26, 2020

SimEarth did this but I’m not sure how you’d play it today!

On the Internet Archive with their handy-dandy in-browser emulator. The catch is that it's extremely 1990 as far as the interface goes.
posted by zachlipton at 12:23 AM on May 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Edgar Grunewald has an entire YouTube channel, Artifexian, devoted to precisely this kind of thing. He uses the software GPlates for a lot of it. (It's free and open source software and runs in Windows, Mac and Linux.) Most of the stuff on his channel along the lines you're interested in is included in his playlist "Map Making".

Sampler of relevant videos:
Fantasy Maps & Plate Tectonics
Fantasy Maps & Plate Tectonics | Tutorial
How To Design Realistic Climates 1
How To Design Realistic Climates 2
How To Simulate Continental Drift in GPlates
I haven't used any of the software he's using, and haven't really considered doing something like this. I just think his videos are fun to watch. Other videos go into how ocean currents and wind patterns influence climate.

I hope you find his software recommendations and tutorials helpful.
posted by nangar at 2:24 AM on May 27, 2020 [8 favorites]

Terragen will do most of what you want, including whole planets and weather, not free but not a fortune. It has a good, active forum. I've only used it to build very large valleys.
posted by unearthed at 3:49 AM on May 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

There's a whole art / game / research area devoted to generating maps from minimal data. It's a deep rabbit hole. Here's one stop on the way down.
posted by Nelson at 6:58 AM on May 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Many of the geographical possibilities exist on earth and finding them is educational. But the software you describe sounds really fun.
posted by theora55 at 7:14 AM on May 27, 2020

Wow, I used to use Gplates EXTENSIVELY for work (research into the geological evolution of the Atlantic ocean) and it did my head in even though much smarter people than me were doing most of the heavy lifting! Amazing to see how much more user friendly it is now, and that you can use it to do cool things like Artifexan is showing.

Terragen is pretty cool too so if it helps you can have a stamp of approval for both from a geologist. An easy real world analogue for any tectonic plate smashing (or subduction in particular) is the Andes.

You might be interested in some of the articles by Alex Acks, a fanstasy writer who also has some articles on Tor. They used to post as asshole geographer on reddit as well
posted by sedimentary_deer at 7:32 AM on May 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I *just* saw something like this on the subreddit

You could draw a fantasy style map with mountains/water etc. No biomes, though.

And I cannot find it again (curse you, reddit search!) ...
posted by MacD at 8:13 AM on May 27, 2020

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