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.
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.
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.
Mapped: Visualizing the True Size of Africa
Common map projections warp our view of the globe. This graphic reveals the true size of Africa, which could fit the U.S., China, India, and more.
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|
|Total||30.33 million sq. km||11.71 million sq. mi||99.9%|
|🇺🇸 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%|
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.
Mapped: The Anatomy of Land Use in America
The U.S. covers an immense 3.8 million square miles—what is all this land currently used for, and what does that mean for the future?
Mapped: The Anatomy of Land Use in America
The United States is not just an economic and political giant on the global stage—the country also has one of the largest land masses at its disposal.
Altogether, the country spans 3.8 million square miles (9.8 million km²)—making it the third largest country in the world. Even without factoring Alaska and Hawaii into the calculations, the contiguous U.S. land mass can fit up to 30 European countries within it.
With this much ground to work with, it raises the natural question of how land actually gets used by America’s economy. For example, what percentage of land is taken up by urban areas, and how much farmland and forests exist in comparison?
Today’s maps from the McHarg Center put America’s wide variety of land uses into perspective.
The Components of U.S. Land Use
As the U.S. prepares to add 100 million more people this century, the “2100 Project: An Atlas for the Green New Deal” provides a snapshot of U.S. land use (as of 2017), aimed at managing resources to support this future.
According to this data, here is a snapshot of land use in the Lower 48 States:
|Land type||Land use (%)||Land area|
|Grasslands and Pasture||17%||530,400 mi²|
|Open Space||3%||93,600 mi²|
|Urban Areas||2%||63,400 mi²|
Let’s dive into the specifics of three types of land: urban areas, forests, and agriculture.
Editor’s note: click on any map below to see a large, high-resolution version, which will open in a new window.
Small But Mighty: U.S. Urban Areas
It’s clear that even a little space goes a long way. Although urban areas take up only 2% of land, an overwhelming majority of Americans call cities their home. As of 2018, urbanites made up over 82% of the U.S. population.
Where people go, productivity often follows. In 2018, it’s estimated that 31 county economies made up a whopping 32% of national GDP. Most of these counties were located in and around major cities, such as Los Angeles or New York.
Although urban areas are a small part of the overall land they’re built on, they’re integral to the nation’s continued growth. According to research by the McKinsey Global Institute, it’s estimated that by 2030, 60% of job growth could come from just 25 hubs.
Seeing Green: America’s Vast Forests
On the flipside, forests account for over a quarter of land in the U.S., divided almost evenly between deciduous and evergreen trees. Many protected national and state parks can also be found in and around forests.
On the mainland, California and Oregon are the states with the most forested land—unfortunately, they have also been plagued by wildfires in recent, dry summer months.
Wetlands are also included in the map above, particularly around the southern tip of Florida, where Everglades National Park is located. Over the years, many wetlands were drained to make way for agriculture, particularly in the Great Lakes megaregion. As a result, it’s estimated that their area today is only half of what they once used to be.
Home Grown: Agriculture in the U.S.
Last but not least, the final set of maps show where America grows its food. Agricultural, food, and related industries contributed $1.05 trillion (5.4%) to U.S. GDP in 2017.
Wheat, corn, and soybeans are the major crops grown in the U.S.—and cotton also makes the cut as a profitable non-food crop. Much of these crops feed not only Americans, but other parts of the world too. Soybeans, corn, and wheat are exported across the Pacific mainly to China and Japan.
Corn, in particular, is a unique crop with a myriad of uses, from food to fuels. Up to 40% of U.S. corn is turned into livestock feed, with cows consuming over half (56%) of this amount.
Although fewer American consumers are opting for meat in their diets, production has remained at high rates. Further, as incomes continues to increase worldwide, the global appetite for meat is set to rise along with it.
Future Land Use
The U.S. population is set to grow by 100 million more people over the coming decades, raising the pressure on limited U.S. land and natural resources. This pressure will be felt everywhere, from dense urban land to agricultural farmland.
How the land gets utilized will shape the country’s future for years to come.
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