Chapter 10 ggplot2

Function ggplot from package ggplot2 (Wickham 2016) provides a high-level interface to creating graphs, essentially by composing all their ingredients and constraints in a single expression. It implements the “grammar for graphics” by Wilkinson (2006), and is the plotting package of choice in the tidyverse.

Before ggplot 3.0.0 came out, the approach to plotting spatial data was to fortify it, meaning encode all the geometries as atomic vectors in a data.frame, keeping an ID column to register which coordinate belonged to which geometry, and repeating all non-geometry attributes for each geometry coordinate. This worked reasonably well for points and lines, but not very well for polygons with holes.

Since ggplot 3.0.0 and package sf, this runs much smoother; ggplot has received a geom_sf function that could take an sf object and calls st_as_grob on each feature geometry to get an object that can directly be added to the plot. In addition to that, it takes care of automated datum transformations or projections if different objects have differing coordinate reference systems, and adds by default a graticule and degree axis tic labels.

Moreno and Basille (2018a), Moreno and Basille (2018b) and Moreno and Basille (2018c) published three guest blogs on explaining the capabilities of ggplot for making beautiful maps with sf and ggplot2.

10.1 geom_sf

We will introduce the properties of geom_sf here step by step. We use a projected version of nc

system.file("gpkg/nc.gpkg", package="sf") %>% read_sf() %>% 
    st_transform(32119) -> nc.32119

and create a first ggplot by

ggplot() + geom_sf(data = nc.32119) 

It is attractive to think that

ggplot(nc.32119) + geom_sf()

would also work, but it doesn’t – it only works if the geometry column is named geometry, which is not always the case (sf objects may have more than one geometry column).

If we want to get rid of the axis tics and grid lines, we could use

ggplot() + geom_sf(data = nc.32119) + theme_void() +
  theme(panel.grid.major = element_line(color = "white"))

A first ggplot2 plot with polygons colored by attributes (as in figure 1.2) is created by

ggplot() + geom_sf(data = nc.32119) + aes(fill = BIR74) +
    scale_fill_gradientn(colors = viridis::viridis(20))

10.1.1 facet plots

Facet plots are a powerful means to compare maps, because they keep all the plotting parameters constant (spatial extent, scale, color breaks). One would perhaps wish that it were possible to directly plot multiple attribute columns over facet maps. For this, we first have to reorganise the data such that the target variable is a single column, another column indicates the facet, and geometries are repeated accordingly. For this, tidyr::gather can be used; an example is given in figure 1.3.

10.1.2 multiple geometries in a single map

Multiple geometries with geom_sf can be created by adding consecutive geom_sf geometries; we can add for instance the county centroids to a plot by

ggplot() + geom_sf(data = nc.32119) + geom_sf(data = st_centroid(nc.32119))
#> Warning in st_centroid.sf(nc.32119): st_centroid assumes attributes are constant
#> over geometries of x

When subsequent sf objects have a different coordinate reference system from the first object, geom_sf will transform them to the reference system of the first object.

10.1.3 Fine tuning

In case sf objects have multiple geometry list-columns, the “active” list column is selected by default. This can be overriden by supplying another column name in aes(geometry = my_column) `

To add labels to geometries, one can use geom_sf_label. From the examples of geom_sf:

nc <- sf::st_read(system.file("gpkg/nc.gpkg", package = "sf"), quiet = TRUE)
nc_3857 <- sf::st_transform(nc, "+init=epsg:3857")
ggplot() + 
    geom_sf(data = nc_3857[1:3, ], aes(fill = AREA)) + 
    geom_sf_label(data = nc_3857[1:3, ], aes(label = NAME))

geom_sf_text can be used to add simple text annotations without decoration.

Graticules are drawn by default. Since they are different for every projection, it is hard to anticipate how strongly they will be curved. geom_sf takes a parameter ndiscr, by default set to 100, which can be increased when graticulas show up unexpectedly as non-smooth lines.

label_graticules can be used to control which graticules are labeled. In addition, label_axes controls on which axes particular graticules will be labeled.

10.2 geom_stars

Package stars comes with a geom_stars function that is much more limited in scope than geom_sf. In essence, it creates a call to

  • geom_raster in case of raster data with a regular grid,
  • to geom_tile for other raster data, or
  • to geom_sf if the stars object has a simple feature geometry dimension rather than raster dimensions, or has a curvilinear raster

geom_raster also creates the mapping of dimension names to x and y-coordinates and set the first attribute name as the fill variable. This means that the aspect ratio still needs to be controlled (coord_equal()) and that a facet_wrap is needed to display multiple rasters. An example is shown in figure 10.1.

#> Loading required package: viridisLite
system.file("tif/L7_ETMs.tif", package = "stars") %>% read_stars() -> x
g = ggplot() + 
    coord_equal() + 
    scale_fill_viridis() + 
    theme_void() +
    scale_x_discrete(expand=c(0,0)) +
g + geom_stars(data = x) + 
example of geom_stars

Figure 10.1: example of geom_stars

geom_stars has a parameter, downsample, which can be used to downsample particular dimensions. Here we downsample a 90m x 90m raster to a 900m x 900m raster:

g + geom_stars(data = x, downsample = c(10,10,1)) + 

data(air) # this loads several datasets in .GlobalEnv
d = st_dimensions(station = st_as_sfc(stations), time = dates)
aq = st_as_stars(list(PM10 = air), dimensions = d)
# ggplot() + geom_stars(data = aq[,,3000])
aq.sf = st_as_sf(aq[,,3000], long=TRUE)
ggplot() + 
   geom_sf(data = st_as_sf(DE_NUTS1)) + 
   geom_sf(data = aq.sf, mapping = aes(col = PM10)) + 


Moreno, Mel, and Mathieu Basille. 2018a. Drawing Beautiful Maps Programmatically with R, Sf and Ggplot2 - Part 1: Basics.

Moreno, Mel, and Mathieu Basille. 2018b. Drawing Beautiful Maps Programmatically with R, Sf and Ggplot2 — Part 2: Layers.

Moreno, Mel, and Mathieu Basille. 2018c. Drawing Beautiful Maps Programmatically with R, Sf and Ggplot2 — Part 3: Layouts.

Wickham, Hadley. 2016. Ggplot2: Elegant Graphics for Data Analysis. Springer.

Wilkinson, Leland. 2006. The Grammar of Graphics. Springer Science & Business Media.