Mapped: The True Size of Africa
Take a look at any map, and it’s clear that the African continent is a big place.
However, despite the common perception that Africa is a large landmass, it’s still one that is vastly underestimated by most casual map viewers.
The reason for this is that the familiar Mercator map projection tends to distort our geographical view of the world in a crucial way — one that often leads to misconceptions about the relative sizes of both countries and continents.
A Geographical Jigsaw
Today’s infographic comes from Kai Krause and it shows the true size of Africa, as revealed by the borders of the countries that can fit within the continent’s shape.
The African continent has a land area of 30.37 million sq km (11.7 million sq mi) — enough to fit in the U.S., China, India, Japan, Mexico, and many European nations, combined.
|Country||Land Area (sq. km)||Land Area (sq. mi)||% of Africa|
|🇺🇸 United States||9.83 million||3.80 million||32.4%|
|🇨🇳 China||9.60 million||3.71 million||31.6%|
|🇮🇳 India||3.29 million||1.27 million||10.8%|
|🇲🇽 Mexico||1.96 million||0.76 million||6.5%|
|🇵🇪 Peru||1.29 million||0.50 million||4.2%|
|🇫🇷 France||0.64 million||0.25 million||2.1%|
|🇪🇸 Spain||0.51 million||0.20 million||1.7%|
|🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea||0.46 million||0.18 million||1.5%|
|🇸🇪 Sweden||0.45 million||0.17 million||1.5%|
|🇯🇵 Japan||0.38 million||0.15 million||1.3%|
|🇩🇪 Germany||0.36 million||0.14 million||1.2%|
|🇳🇴 Norway||0.32 million||0.13 million||1.1%|
|🇮🇹 Italy||0.30 million||0.12 million||1.0%|
|🇳🇿 New Zealand||0.27 million||0.10 million||0.9%|
|🇬🇧 United Kingdom||0.24 million||0.09 million||0.8%|
|🇳🇵 Nepal||0.15 million||0.06 million||0.5%|
|🇧🇩 Bangladesh||0.15 million||0.06 million||0.5%|
|🇬🇷 Greece||0.13 million||0.05 million||0.4%|
|Total||30.33 million sq. km||11.71 million sq. mi||99.9%|
You could add together all of the landmasses above and they would not equate to the geographical footprint of Africa, which itself is home to 54 countries and 1.2 billion people.
Editor’s note: The above table is slightly different from the countries shown in the visualization, which focuses more on fitting recognizable country shapes into the geographical shape of Africa.
Why the Misconception?
Interestingly, the problem with maps is not that Africa is sized incorrectly.
Using the animation below, you’ll see that Africa is actually the most accurately sized continent using the common Mercator map projection:
The Mercator projection attempts to place the spherical shape of the world onto a cylinder, causing areas closest to the poles to be “stretched”.
Africa, which straddles the Equator, barely changes in size — meanwhile, the countries furthest from the Equator become inflated from their true sizes on this type of map.
For those of us living in Western countries, this is an interesting dilemma to consider.
This means that the sizes of European and North American countries are distorted, giving us an inaccurate mental “measuring stick” for judging the relative sizes of other countries.
This has implications not only for Africa, but for the whole Southern Hemisphere: South America, India, the Middle East, and even Australia are “bigger” than they may initially appear on a map.
Visualizing Population Density Patterns in Six Countries
These maps show the population density of several countries, using 3D spikes to denote where more people live.
As of 2022, Earth has 8 billion humans. By 2050, the population is projected to grow to 10 billion.
In the last 100 years, the global population more than quadrupled. But none of this growth has been evenly spread out, including within countries.
This series of 3D maps from Terence Teo, an associate professor at Seton Hall University, renders the population density of six countries using open-source data from Kontur Population. He used popular programming language R and a path-tracing package, Rayshader, to create the maps.
France and Germany: Population Density Spikes and Troughs
Let’s take a look at how the population spreads out in different countries around the world. Click the images to explore higher-resolution versions.
France is the world’s 7th largest economy and second-most-populous country in the EU with 65 million people. But a staggering one-fifth of the French population lives in Paris and its surrounding metro—the most populous urban area in Europe.
Many residents in the Paris metropolitan area are employed in the service sector, which makes up one-third of France’s $2.78 trillion gross domestic product.
Unlike France, Germany has many dense cities and regions, with Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, and Cologne all having over a million residents. Berlin is the most populated at 3.5 million residents in the city proper, and 6 million in the wider urban area.
That said, the relatively recent reunification of West and East Germany in 1991 meant that post-WWII growth was mostly concentrated in West Germany (and West Berlin).
Italy and Chile: Coast to Coast
In Italy, another phenomenon affects population density and urban development—a sprawling coastline.
Despite having a large population of 59 million and large metropolitan areas throughout, Italy’s population spikes are closer to the water.
The port cities of Genoa, Napoli, and Palermo all have large spikes relative to the rest of the country, as does the capital, Rome. Despite its city center located 15 miles inland from the sea, it extends to the shore through the district of Ostia, where the ancient port of Rome existed.
Meanwhile in Chile, stuck between the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, population spikes corroborate with its many port towns and cities.
However, the country is more concentrated than Italy, with 40% of its residents congregating around the capital of Santiago.
Turkey and Canada: Marred by Mountains and Climes
Though Chile has difficulties with terrain, it is relatively consistent. Other countries have to attempt to settle many different climes—regions defined by their climates.
Mountains to the south and east, a large, semi-arid plateau, and even a small desert leave few centers of urban growth in Türkiye.
Predictably, further west, as the elevation comes down to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, population spikes begin to heighten. The largest of course is the economic and cultural hub of Istanbul, though the capital Ankara is also prominent with more than 5 million residents.
In Canada, the Rocky Mountains to the west and freezing cold temperatures in the center and north account for the large country’s relative emptiness.
Though population spikes in Western Canada are growing rapidly, highly populous urban centers are noticeably concentrated along the St. Lawrence River, with the Greater Toronto Area accounting for more than one-sixth of the country’s 39 million people.
According to the World Bank, more than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities, and that trend is only growing.
By 2050, 7 out of 10 people are projected to live in cities. This congregation makes cities a beehive of productivity and innovation—with more than 80% of the world’s GDP being generated at these population centers.
It’s in this context that mapping and studying urban development becomes all the more important, particularly as policymakers try their hand at sustainable urban planning.
As Teo puts it:
“By showing where people are (and are not), they show us where political and economic power is concentrated, and perhaps where and who our governments represent.”
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