A Radical Map Puts the Oceans–Not Land–at the Center of Planet Earth (1942)

We all learn the names, loca­tions, and even char­ac­ter­is­tics of the oceans in school. But unless we go into oceanog­ra­phy or some oth­er body-of-water-cen­tric pro­fes­sion, few of us keep them at our com­mand. Maybe the loss of that knowl­edge has to do with our land-cen­tric­i­ty as a species: not only do we live on the stuff, we also put it before water intel­lec­tu­al­ly. You can see how by tak­ing a glance at the design of most any world map, whose fram­ing, details, and col­or scheme all work togeth­er to high­light the land, not the water. Only the map above, the “Spilhaus Pro­jec­tion,” dares to reverse that scheme, putting Earth­’s water at the cen­ter and turn­ing it from neg­a­tive space into pos­i­tive.

Named for its cre­ator, the South African-born oceanog­ra­ph­er, geo­physi­cist, inven­tor, urban design­er (hav­ing come up with Min­neapo­lis Sky­way Sys­tem), and com­ic artist Athel­stan Spilhaus, the Spilhaus Pro­jec­tion “revers­es the land-based bias of tra­di­tion­al car­to­graph­ic pro­jec­tions,” writes Big Think’s Frank Jacobs, plac­ing “the poles of the map in South Amer­i­ca and Chi­na, rip­ping up con­ti­nents to show the high seas as one inter­rupt­ed whole.” The result­ing “earth-sea” is “per­fo­rat­ed by Antarc­ti­ca and Aus­tralia, and fringed by the oth­er land mass­es.” If you look close­ly at the top and low­er right of the map, you’ll find tri­an­gu­lar sym­bols indi­cat­ing the Bering Strait, per­haps the best land­mark to ori­ent your per­cep­tion of this rad­i­cal­ly new view of plan­et Earth.

But the view pro­vid­ed by the Spilhaus Pro­jec­tion (ren­dered here by graph­ic design­er Clara Deal­ber­to for Libéra­tion) isn’t as new as it may look. Spilhaus designed it back in 1942, as a side project while work­ing on the inven­tion for which he is per­haps most remem­bered: the bathyther­mo­graph, a device for mea­sur­ing ocean depths and tem­per­a­tures from mov­ing ves­sels like boats and sub­marines. But Jacobs cred­its it with a new rel­e­vance today: “Our oceans pro­duce between 50% and 85% of the world’s oxy­gen and are a major source of food for human­i­ty. But they are in mor­tal dan­ger, from over­fish­ing, acid­i­fi­ca­tion, plas­tic pol­lu­tion and cli­mate change. Mar­itime ‘dead zones’ – with zero oxy­gen and zero marine life – have quadru­pled since the 1950s.”

In oth­er words, our world and the oceans that cov­er more than 70 per­cent of its sur­face already look quite a bit dif­fer­ent than they did when Spilhaus designed this re-pri­or­i­tized way of visu­al­iz­ing them. Spilhaus lived until 1998, long enough to see the emer­gence of cur­rent ideas about cli­mate change, but one does won­der whether we in the 21st cen­tu­ry have devel­oped the kind of ocean-con­scious­ness for which he must have hoped. Per­haps our times call for even more dras­tic map­ping action, not just show­ing the cen­tral­i­ty of the oceans but, as we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, show­ing what might hap­pen if they change much more.

via Big Think

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Map Shows What Hap­pens When Our World Gets Four Degrees Warmer: The Col­orado Riv­er Dries Up, Antarc­ti­ca Urban­izes, Poly­ne­sia Van­ish­es

A Cen­tu­ry of Glob­al Warm­ing Visu­al­ized in a 35 Sec­ond Video

Coun­tries and Coast­lines: A Dra­mat­ic View of Earth from Out­er Space

Japan­ese Design­ers May Have Cre­at­ed the Most Accu­rate Map of Our World: See the Autha­Graph

The His­to­ry of Car­tog­ra­phy, “the Most Ambi­tious Overview of Map Mak­ing Ever Under­tak­en,” Is Free Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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