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Mercator Misconceptions: Clever Map Shows the True Size of Countries

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Mercator Misconceptions: Clever Map Shows the True Size of Countries

Mercator Misconceptions: 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 artifiically “pumped up” in the minds of many people around the world.

True size of countries animation Mercator

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

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

Getting Reacquainted with Globes

Google, whose map app is used by approximately 150 million people per month, recently took the bold step of overlaying their map onto a globe. This change sidesteps projection issues completely and displays the world as it actually is: round.

Greenland’s projection is no longer the size of Africa.

– Google Maps team

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.

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Demographics

Visualizing 200 Years of U.S. Population Density

This animation shows the population density of U.S. counties between 1790 and 2010, showing the westward expansion of the country’s population.

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Visualizing 200 Years of U.S. Population Density

At the moment, there are around 326 million people living in the United States, a country that’s 3.5 million square miles (9.8 million sq km) in land area.

But throughout the nation’s history, neither of these numbers have stayed constant.

Not only did the population boom as a result of births and immigrants, but the borders of the country kept changing as well – especially in the country’s early years as settlers moved westwards.

U.S. Population Density Over Time

From a big picture perspective, here is how population density has changed for the country as a whole over the last 200 years or so:

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But today’s animated map, which comes to us from Vivid Maps, takes things a step further.

It plots U.S. population density numbers over the time period of 1790-2010 based on U.S. Census data and Jonathan Schroeder’s county-level decadal estimates for population. In essence, it gives a more precise view of who moved where and when over the course of the nation’s history.

Note: While U.S. Census data is granular and dates back to 1790, it comes with certain limitations. One obvious drawback, for example, is that such data is not able to properly account for Native American populations.

“Go West, Young Man”

As you might notice in the animation, there is one anomaly that appears in the late-1800s: the area around modern-day Oklahoma is colored in, but the state itself is an “empty gap” on the map.

The reason for this? The area was originally designated as Indian Territory – land reserved for the forced re-settlement of Native Americans. However, in 1889, the land was opened up to a massive land rush, and approximately 50,000 pioneers lined up to grab a piece of the two million acres (8,000 km²) opened for settlement.

While settlers flocking to Oklahoma is one specific event that ties into this animation, really the map shows the history of a much broader land rush in general: Manifest Destiny.

You can see pioneers landing in Louisiana in the early 1800s, the first settlements in California and Oregon, and the gradual filling up of the states in the middle of the country.

By the mid-20th century, the distribution of the population starts to resemble that of modern America.

Population Density Today

The average population density in the U.S. is now 92 people per square mile, although this changes dramatically based on where you are located:

If you are in Alaska, the state with the lowest population density, there is just one person per square mile – but if you’re in New York City there are 27,000 people per square mile, the highest of any major city in the country.

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Environment

The World’s 25 Largest Lakes, Side by Side

This unique map graphic uses the Great Lakes region as a point of comparison for the top 25 largest lakes in the world.

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The World’s 25 Largest Lakes, Side by Side

In many parts of the world, you don’t have to look very far to find a lake.

According to satellite data, there are roughly 100 million lakes larger than one hectare (2.47 acres) to be found globally. The largest lakes, which rival the size of entire nations, are more of a rarity.

One might expect the world’s largest lakes to be very alike, but from depth to saline content, their properties can be quite different. As well, the ranking of the world’s largest lakes is far from static, as human activity can turn a massive body of water into a desert within a single generation.

Today’s graphic – created using the fantastic online tool, Slap It On A Map! – uses the Great Lakes region as a point of comparison for the largest 25 lakes, by area. This is particularly useful in comparing the scale of lakes that are located in disparate parts of the globe.

The Greatest Lakes

The largest lake in the world by a long shot is the Caspian Sea – a name that hints at a past when it was contiguous with the ocean around 11 million years ago. This massive saline lake, which is nearly the same size as Japan, borders five countries: Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran. An estimated 48 billion barrels of oil lay beneath the surface of the basin.

The five Great Lakes, which run along the Canada–U.S. border, form one of the largest collections of fresh water on Earth. This interconnected series of lakes represents around 20% of the world’s fresh water and the region supports over 100 million people, roughly equal to one-third of the Canada–U.S. population.

Amazingly, a single lake holds as much fresh water as all the Great Lakes combined – Lake Baikal. This rift lake in Siberia has a maximum depth of 5,371ft (1,637m). For comparison, the largest of the Great Lakes (Lake Superior) is only 25% as deep, with a maximum depth of 1,333ft (406m). Lake Baikal is unique in a number of other ways too. It is the world’s oldest, coldest lake, and around 80% of its animal species are endemic (not found anywhere else).

Here’s a full run-down of the top 25 lakes by area:

RankLake NameSurface AreaTypeCountries on shoreline
1Caspian Sea143,000 sq mi
(371,000km²)
Saline🇰🇿 Kazakhstan
🇷🇺 Russia
🇹🇲 Turkmenistan
🇦🇿 Azerbaijan
🇮🇷 Iran
2Superior31,700 sq mi
(82,100km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
🇺🇸 U.S.
3Victoria26,590 sq mi
(68,870km²)
Freshwater🇺🇬 Uganda
🇰🇪 Kenya
🇹🇿 Tanzania
4Huron23,000 sq mi
(59,600km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
🇺🇸 U.S.
5Michigan22,000 sq mi
(58,000km²)
Freshwater🇺🇸 U.S.
6Tanganyika12,600 sq mi
(32,600km²)
Freshwater🇧🇮 Burundi
🇹🇿 Tanzania
🇿🇲 Zambia
🇨🇩 D.R.C.
7Baikal12,200 sq mi
(31,500km²)
Freshwater🇷🇺 Russia
8Great Bear Lake12,000 sq mi
(31,000km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
9Malawi11,400 sq mi
(29,500km²)
Freshwater🇲🇼 Malawi
🇲🇿 Mozambique
🇹🇿 Tanzania
10Great Slave Lake10,000 sq mi
(27,000km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
11Erie9,900 sq mi
(25,700km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
🇺🇸 U.S.
12Winnipeg9,465 sq mi
(24,514km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
13Ontario7,320 sq mi
(18,960km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
🇺🇸 U.S.
14Ladoga7,000 sq mi
(18,130km²)
Freshwater🇷🇺 Russia
15Balkhash6,300 sq mi
(16,400km²)
Saline🇰🇿 Kazakhstan
16Vostok4,800 sq mi
(12,500km²)
Freshwater🇦🇶 Antarctica
17Onega3,700 sq mi
(9,700km²)
Freshwater🇷🇺 Russia
18Titicaca3,232 sq mi
(8,372km²)
Freshwater🇧🇴 Bolivia
🇵🇪 Peru
19Nicaragua3,191 sq mi
(8,264km²)
Freshwater🇳🇮 Nicaragua
20Athabasca3,030 sq mi
(7,850km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
21Taymyr2,700 sq mi
(6,990km²)
Freshwater🇷🇺 Russia
22Turkana2,473 sq mi
(6,405km²)
Saline🇰🇪 Kenya
🇪🇹 Ethiopia
23Reindeer Lake2,440 sq mi
(6,330km²)
Freshwater🇨🇦 Canada
24Issyk-Kul2,400 sq mi
(6,200km²)
Saline🇰🇬 Kyrgyzstan
25Urmia2,317 sq mi
(6,001km²)
Saline🇮🇷 Iran

Shrinking out of the rankings

Not far from the world’s largest lake, straddling the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, lay the sand dunes of the Aralkum Desert. In the not so distant past, this harsh environment was actually the bed of one of the largest lakes in the world – the Aral Sea.

Aral Sea receding 1960 2020

For reasons both climatic and anthropogenic, the Aral Sea began receding in the 1960s. This dramatic change in surface area took the Aral Sea from the fourth largest lake on Earth to not even ranking in the top 50. Researchers note that the size of the lake has fluctuated a lot over history, but through the lens of modern history these recent changes happened rapidly, leaving local economies devastated and former shoreside towns landlocked.

Lake Chad, in Saharan Africa, and Lake Urmia, in Iran, both face similar challenges, shrinking dramatically in recent decades.

How we work to reverse damage and avoid ecosystem collapse in vulnerable lakes will have a big influence on how the top 25 list may look in future years.

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