Some maps are just wrong

Challenge: how do you make a 2-dimensional rectangular representation of a 3-dimensional sphere? Well we have a few contenders when it comes to making a 2-D map of the Earth.

Most of us will recognize what is called the Mercator Projection Map created in the mid/late 1500’s by a European cartographer named Gerardus Mercator:

Mercator Projection Map

Notice that Greenland is as big as Africa? Well, that’s not right! Check it out. The Mercator map depicts them as the same:

Mercator - Greenland vs Africa

But in reality, check out how big Africa actually is!

Africa vs The World

Yeah, you saw that correctly. Africa is as big as the US, most of Europe, China, and India combined! Meanwhile, Greenland is just slightly bigger than Texas tripled.

Greenland vs Texas

More problems:

  • Greenland takes as much space on the map as Africa, when in reality Africa’s area is 14 times greater and Greenland’s is comparable to Algeria’s alone.
  • Alaska takes as much area on the map as Brazil, when Brazil’s area is nearly five times that of Alaska.
  • Finland appears with a greater north-south extent than India, although India’s is greater.
  • Antarctica appears as the biggest continent, being infinitely large, although it is actually the fifth in terms of area.

So how does this major discrepancy happen? The bottom line is when you take a sphere and put it on a 2-D rectangle it results in distortion. I tried to find an animated illustration but failed. So try this on for size: if you were to draw circles on the globe that each covered the same amount of space you’d get this on the Mercator map:

Mercator distortion

Now ‘distort’ the map instead of the circles and you get what Frenchman Tissot published in the late 1800’s:

Globe distorted with circles

In the early 1970’s, a German filmmaker published what is known as the Gall-Peters Projection map by elongating the poles to make land mass equal:

Gall-Peters Projection Map

Well that helps some but not a lot because land is still distorted. Your best bet to understand the shape of our 3-D Earth is to get a 3-D globe. But in the meantime, on this 2-D media, your best bet is the Winkel Tripel Projection Map.

Winkel Tripel Projection Map

Happy Cartographing!

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