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Mercator Misconceptions: Clever Map Shows the True Size of Countries



mercator projection true size of countries


This Clever Map Shows the True Size of Countries

Maps are hugely important tools in our everyday life, whether it’s guiding our journeys from point A to B, or shaping our big picture perceptions about geopolitics and the environment.

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.

Mercator’s Rise to the Top

With any map projection style, the big challenge lies in depicting a spherical object as a 2D graphic. There are various trade-offs with any map style, and those trade-offs can vary depending on how the map is meant to be used.

In 1569, the great cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, created a revolutionary new map based on a cylindrical projection. The new map was well-suited to nautical navigation since every line on the sphere is a constant course, or loxodrome.

Geographic Inflation

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—particularly in the case of the African continent.

Mercator’s map inadvertently also pumps up the sizes of Europe and North America. Visually speaking, Canada and Russia appear to take up approximately 25% of the Earth’s surface, when in reality they occupy a mere 5%.

As the animated GIF below—created by Reddit user, neilrkaye – demonstrates, northern nations such as Canada and Russia have been artificially “pumped up” in the minds of many people around the world.

True size of countries animation Mercator

Greenland, which appears as a massive icy landmass in Mercator projection, shrinks way down. The continent of Africa takes a much more prominent position in this new, correctly-scaled map.

This visualization also highlights how distorted neighboring countries can look in Mercator projection. In the GIF above, Scandinavian countries no longer loom imposingly over their European neighbors, and Canada deflates to a size similar to the United States.

Despite inaccurate visual features—or perhaps because of them—the Mercator projection has achieved widespread adoption around the world. This includes in the classroom, where young minds are first learning about geography and forming opinions on the relationships between countries.

Getting Reacquainted with Globes

Google, whose map app is used by approximately 150 million people per month, took the bold step of using different projections for different purposes in 2018.

The Earth is depicted as a globe at further zoom levels, sidestepping map projection issues completely and displaying the world as it actually is: round. The result is a more accurate depiction of countries and landmasses.

At closer zoom levels, users are typically using maps for things like navigation, which the Mercator projection was designed for. The exact angles of roads and borders are preserved in this projection.

In the Right Direction

In a more globally connected world, geographic literacy is more important than ever. As people become more accustomed to equal area maps and seeing the Earth in its spherical form, misconceptions about the size of continents may become a thing of the past.

This post was first published in 2018. We have since updated it, adding in new content for 2021.

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Mapped: What Did the World Look Like in the Last Ice Age?

A map of the Earth 20,000 years ago, at the peak of the last ice age, when colder temperatures transformed the planet we know so well.



A map of the Earth 20,000 years ago, at the peak of the last ice age, when colder temperatures transformed the planet we know so well.

What Did the World Look Like in the Last Ice Age?

What did the world look like during the last ice age? Was it all endless glaciers and frozen ice? The answer is a partial yes—with some interesting caveats.

The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), colloquially called the last ice age, was a period in Earth’s history that occurred roughly 26,000 to 19,000 years ago.

This map by cartographer Perrin Remonté offers a snapshot of the Earth from that time, using data of past sea levels and glaciers from research published in 2009, 2014, and 2021, alongside modern-day topographical data.

Let’s dive into the differences between the two Earths below.

The Last Ice Age: Low Seas, Exposed Landmasses

During an ice age, sea levels fall as ocean water that evaporates is stored on land on a large scale (ice sheets, ice caps, glaciers) instead of returning to the ocean.

Earth's Ice Cover20,000 Years AgoToday

At the time of the LGM, the climate was cold and dry with temperatures that were 6 °C (11 °F) lower on average. Water levels in the ocean were more than 400 feet below what they are now, exposing large areas of the continental shelf.

In the map above, these areas are represented as the gray, dry land most noticeable in a few big patches in Southeast Asia and between Russia and Alaska. Here are a few examples of regions of dry land from 20,000 years ago that are now under water:

  • A “lost continent” called Sundaland, a southeastern extension of Asia which forms the island regions of Indonesia today. Some scholars see a connection with this location and the mythical site of Atlantis, though there are many other theories.
  • The Bering land bridge, now a strait, connecting Asia and North America. It is central to the theory explaining how ancient humans crossed between the two continents.
  • Another land bridge connected the island of Great Britain with the rest of continental Europe. The island of Ireland is in turn connected to Great Britain by a giant ice sheet.
  • In Japan, the low water level made the Sea of Japan a lake, and a land bridge connected the region to the Asian mainland. The Yellow Sea—famous as a modern-day fishing location—was completely dry.

The cold temperatures also caused the polar parts of continents to be covered by massive ice sheets, with glaciers forming in mountainous areas.

Flora and Fauna in the Last Ice Age

The dry climate during the last ice age brought about the expansion of deserts and the disappearance of rivers, but some areas saw increased precipitation from falling temperatures.

Most of Canada and Northern Europe was covered with large ice sheets. The U.S. was a mix of ice sheets, alpine deserts, snow forests, semi-arid scrubland and temperate grasslands. Areas that are deserts today—like the Mojave—were filled with lakes. The Great Salt Lake in Utah is a remnant from this time.

Africa had a mix of grasslands in its southern half and deserts in the north—the Sahara Desert existed then as well—and Asia was a mix of tropical deserts in the west, alpine deserts in China, and grasslands in the Indian subcontinent.

Several large animals like the woolly mammoth, the mastodon, the giant beaver, and the saber-toothed tiger roamed the world in extremely harsh conditions, but sadly all are extinct today.

However, not all megafauna from the LGM disappeared forever; many species are still alive, including the Bactrian camel, the tapir, the musk ox, and the white rhinoceros—though the latter is now an endangered species.

Will There Be Another Ice Age?

In a technical sense, we’re still in an “ice age” called the Quaternary Glaciation, which began about 2.6 million years ago. That’s because a permanent ice sheet has existed for the entire time, the Antarctic, which makes geologists call this entire period an ice age.

We are currently in a relatively warmer part of that ice age, described as an interglacial period, which began 11,700 years ago. This geological epoch is known as the Holocene.

Over billions of years, the Earth has experienced numerous glacial and interglacial periods and has had five major ice ages:

Major Ice AgesNameTime Period (Years Ago)
1Huronian Glaciation2.4 billion - 2.1 billion
2Cryogenian Glaciation720 million - 635 million
3Andean-Saharan Glaciation450 million - 420 million
4Late Paleozoic ice age335 million - 260 million
5Quaternary Glaciation2.6 million - present

It is predicted that temperatures will fall again in a few thousand years, leading to expansion of ice sheets. However there are a dizzying array of factors that are still not understood well enough to say comprehensively what causes (or ends) ice ages.

A popular explanation says the degree of the Earth’s axial tilt, its wobble, and its orbital shape, are the main factors heralding the start and end of this phenomenon.

The variations in all three lead to a change in how much prolonged sunlight parts of the world receive, which in turn can cause the creation or melting of ice sheets. But these take thousands of years to coincide and cause a significant change in climate.

Furthermore, current industrial activities have warmed the climate considerably and may in fact delay the next ice age by 50,000-100,000 years.

Still on a history kick? Check out Mapped: The Ancient Seven Wonders of the World that captivated people for thousands of years.
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