Does the map above look familiar? It should. If you went to school in the United States, you probably saw this map, or one very much like it, hanging in your classrooms.
And if you think that this is an accurate representation of what the world looks like, think again.
Take a look at Greenland, the big yellow country at the top of the map. Greenland looks huge — about the same size as Africa, larger than South America, and certainly way larger than the United States. No wonder Trump wanted to buy it from Denmark.
I went to Google and looked up the sizes, in square miles, of some continents and countries. What I found astounded me.
- Africa is 11.67 million square miles
- South America is 6.89 million square miles
- Russia is 6.6 million square miles
- The United States is 3.81 million square miles
- China is 3.71 million square miles
- Australia is 2.97 million miles
- Greenland is only 836,300 square miles
So why does Greenland look so damn big? I mean look at the map at the top of this post. Greenland looks fucking enormous.
But it’s a lot smaller than it appears on most maps of the world. In fact, if you compare Greenland’s land mass to that of the other countries mentioned above, this is what it looks like.Greenland is not tiny, but it’s certainly not as huge as most maps suggest.
Why is that? Well, it’s because most maps, including the one at the top of this post, use the Mercator projection to display the round world on a flat plane.
This type of map was developed by the Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569. That was 450 years ago! And yet the Mercator projection is still used today because it’s an easy-to-read cylindrical map projection.
All world maps distort the actual layout of the Earth to some degree. The issue is that it is impossible to portray the reality of the spherical world on a flat map.
In the case of the Mercator map, it leads to significant distortion of both the size and shape of large objects. The scale of the distortion increases between the Equator and the poles.
Looking at a Mercator map, North America looks larger than Africa, Alaska appears to be larger than Mexico, and China is smaller than Greenland. But in reality, China is four times bigger than Greenland, Africa is three times bigger than North America, and Mexico is larger than Alaska.
Bottom line, the modern world continues to perceive a nearly five centuries old map as an accurate representation of the world, which it is not.
A more recently drawn (early 20th century) map, the Gall-Peters projection shows the world to be a very different looking place.Not surprisingly, the Gall-Peters map met with significant resistance. It shows what we perceive as the land mass of countries in the “south” to be nearly twice as big as those in the “north” — 38.6 million square miles compared to 18.9 million square miles, respectively.
The Mercator projection, however, makes the north look much larger, which, it has been argued, shows a euro-centric bias and harms the world’s perception of developing countries.
The advocates for adoption of the Gall-Peters projection argued that the Mercator projection hindered growth and development in third-world nations while promoting the prominence of Europe and North America. That argument did not sit too well, for both political and practical reasons, with the more developed world powers, so Gall-Peters was never largely embraced.
So the next time you look at a map of the world, remind yourself, that what you’re seeing is a very distorted world view. You know, like what you get if you’re watching Fox News.
By the way, I found this clip, which I thought you might find interesting — well, if you found this post at all interesting, anyway.
Written for Fandango’s One-Word Challenge (map).