Points on x-y plots
can also be called:

Ordered pairs
(Cartesian) coordinates

How do I plot points on a graph?
Plotting geologic data in x-y space

Why should I plot points?

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide levels measured in the atmosphere above Mauna Loa, Hawaii (modified from Keeling and Whorf, 2003).

In the geosciences, we deal with large volumes of data, both observational and measured. This may be in the form of climate data, rock chemistry, elevation measurements, seismic data, etc. We generally compile data into tables and when we want to know the relationship of one variable to another, one of the easiest ways to do that is to put that data on a plot. Take the table of data to the right. Just looking at it (you can click on the image to open a bigger version in a new window), can you tell what the general trend in CO2 values has been for the past 50 years? Has the trend changed in the past 10 years? How about the last 5 years of record? Does the data vary from month to month? Are there seasonal cycles? So many questions! And they can all be answered with a simple x-y plot.

Where is graphing used in the geosciences?

Geoscientists use graphs to illustrate all kinds of issues in the science. In introductory geoscience courses, you may be asked to plot data in conjunction with units that deal with:

  • rock compositions
  • topographic maps
  • streams and floods
  • and almost any topic that might be covered in your course

If you are struggling to remember how to plot points, this page is for you! Below you will find some simple steps for plotting points on an x-y graph and links to pages to help you with the next steps.

Simple rules for plotting points

Any plot or graph that has two axes is an x-y (or bivariate) plot. One axis (generally, the horizontal one) is the "x-axis" and the other (the vertical one) is considered the "y-axis". But, you can use any variable for either one, all you need is a data set that has two sets of related data. Below there is an example of a set of data points for how basalt melting temperatures change deeper in the Earth.

basalt melting data Table showing how melting temperature of basalt changes with depth in the Earth. Modified from Tarbuck et al., 2008, Applications and Investigations in Earth Science, 6th edition,.

When we plot data on a graph, there are several steps that you can follow to make sure that you don't forget anything:

  1. Make sure that you have two variables to work with (two columns of data). In the case of the table above, the two variables are depth (km) and basalt melting temperature (°C).
  2. Decide which of the variable is going to be represented on the x-axis and which will be on the y-axis. In some cases, you will be provided with a graph that has the axes labeled. A general rule of thumb (and one that many spreadsheet and graphing programs use) is that numbers in the first column of a table will on the x-axis. However, geologists do not always follow this rule, so make sure you check.
  3. Label the axes on your plot and determine the appropriate scale (if the graph is not already labeled).
  4. Begin by plotting the first two pairs of numbers (the top row of numbers).
  5. Continue to plot pairs of points from the table (in rows) until you have plotted all the points.
  6. Your final graph should have the same number of points as pairs of data in your table.

You can download and print a sheet with the steps on it here (Acrobat (PDF) 35kB Sep10 08).

Some practice problems

I am ready to PRACTICE!

If you think you have a handle on all of the things listed above click on this bar to try some practice problems with worked answers!