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Mercator Misconceptions: Clever Map Shows the True Size of Countries

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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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Maps

Map: Where Are America’s Largest Landfills?

According to the EPA, the U.S. produced 292 million tons of solid waste in 2018, of which 150 million headed to some of the largest landfills in the country.

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Map: Where Are America’s Largest Landfills?

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on Apple or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

We map out America’s largest landfills, based on their total capacity (measured in millions of tons) for solid waste. Data for this graphic is sourced from Statista and is current up to 2023.

According to the EPA, the U.S. produced 292 million tons of solid waste in 2018. Of that, about 150 million tons headed to the country’s landfills. It would take more than 600 of the largest cargo ships (by dead weight tonnage) to move this much material at once.

Ranked: America’s Largest Landfills

Opened in 1993 and located 25 minutes from Las Vegas, Apex Landfill is believed to be one of the world’s largest landfills by both area and volume.

It spans 1,900 acres, or roughly the size of 1,400 football fields. Given its vast capacity, the landfill is expected to be able to accept waste for over 250 years.

Here are the top 10 largest landfills in the country.

RankU.S. LandfillStateCapacity (Million Tons)
1Apex RegionalNevada995
2ECDC EnvironmentalUtah482
3Denver Arapahoe Disposal SiteColorado396
4Columbia RidgeOregon393
5Lockwood RegionalNevada346
6OkeechobeeFlorida242
7Butterfield StationArizona226
8Roosevelt Regional MSWWashington219
9Wasatch RegionalUtah203
10Hillsborough CountyFlorida203

In a 2021 PBS interview, a spokesperson for Apex Landfill reported that the facility captured and treated enough landfill gas to power nearly 11,000 homes in Southern Nevada.

In fact, landfills can create electricity through a process called landfill gas (LFG) recovery. When organic waste decomposes, it produces methane gas which can be captured and purified to create fuel for generators.

As it happens, methane gas from landfills is the third-largest source of human-related carbon emissions, equivalent to 24 million gas passenger vehicles driven for one year. Its capture and treatment is a significant opportunity to combat emissions.

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