Animated Maps Reveal the True Size of Countries (and Show How Traditional Maps Distort Our World)

The world maps we know all mis­rep­re­sent the world itself: we’ve all heard it many times before, but how well do we under­stand the nature of that mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion? “For many peo­ple, the Earth as they know it is heav­i­ly informed by the Mer­ca­tor pro­jec­tion – a tool used for nau­ti­cal nav­i­ga­tion that even­tu­al­ly became the world’s most wide­ly rec­og­nized map,” writes Visu­al Cap­i­tal­ist’s Nick Rout­ley. But the Mer­ca­tor pro­jec­tion dates to 1569, and “the vast major­i­ty of us aren’t using paper maps to chart our course across the ocean any­more, so crit­ics of the Mer­ca­tor pro­jec­tion argue that the con­tin­ued use of this style of map gives users a warped sense of the true size of coun­tries.”

Some of the geo­graph­i­cal mis­con­cep­tions Ger­ar­dus Mer­ca­tor inad­ver­tent­ly instilled in human­i­ty to this day include exag­ger­a­tions of the size of Europe and North Amer­i­ca. “Visu­al­ly speak­ing, Cana­da and Rus­sia appear to take up approx­i­mate­ly 25% of the Earth’s sur­face” on a Mer­ca­tor map, “when in real­i­ty they occu­py a mere 5%.”

Fig­ures are one thing, but a fair few 21st cen­tu­ry car­tog­ra­phy enthu­si­asts have also used tech­nol­o­gy unavail­able and indeed unimag­in­able in Mer­ca­tor’s day to show us in a more imme­di­ate­ly leg­i­ble way exact­ly how his pro­jec­tion dis­torts land mass­es. Recent­ly, a cli­mate data sci­en­tist named Neil Kaye has used the form of the ani­mat­ed GIF to show what hap­pens when coun­tries shrink to their actu­al size on a Mer­ca­tor map, and when Mex­i­co and Green­land trade places.

As soon as Mex­i­co goes north and Green­land goes south, it becomes obvi­ous that both are real­ly of a sim­i­lar size, though we might have assumed the lat­ter to be much larg­er than the for­mer. And in fact, Mer­ca­tor pro­jec­tion makes all coun­tries far­ther from the equa­tor look larg­er in rela­tion to all coun­tries near­er to the equa­tor. We’ve point­ed out the impos­si­bil­i­ty of mak­ing a per­fect­ly faith­ful two-dimen­sion­al world map before here before on Open Cul­ture, an impos­si­bil­i­ty that has­n’t stopped car­tog­ra­phers from try­ing to come up with more and more accu­rate pro­jec­tions. But even they can’t sub­sti­tute for an acute aware­ness of how even the most pop­u­lar maps can be wrong, an aware­ness you can devel­op even more inten­sive­ly by view­ing the many oth­er car­to­graph­ic cre­ations Kaye has post­ed to the “Map Porn” sub­red­dit — anoth­er tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment Mer­ca­tor sure­ly could­n’t have fore­seen.

via Visu­al Cap­i­tal­ist

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The “True Size” Maps Shows You the Real Size of Every Coun­try (and Will Change Your Men­tal Pic­ture of the World)

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,” Now Free Online

New York Pub­lic Library Puts 20,000 Hi-Res Maps Online & Makes Them Free to Down­load and Use

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

Why Mak­ing Accu­rate World Maps Is Math­e­mat­i­cal­ly Impos­si­ble

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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