Maps shape our understanding of the world – and in an increasingly interconnected and global economy, this geographic knowledge is more important than ever.
The funny thing is, almost everyone actually has a skewed perception of the true size of countries thanks to a cartographic technique called the Mercator projection. Used just about everywhere, from textbooks to Google Maps, the Mercator projection map is the way most of humanity recognizes the position and size of Earth’s continents.
The Mercator Projection
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. In modern times, this is particularly useful since the Earth can be depicted as seamless in online mapping applications.
That said, the true sizes of landmasses become increasingly distorted the further away from the equator they get. Mercator’s map inadvertently pumps up the sizes of Europe and North America. Visually speaking, Canada and Russia appear to take up approximately 25% of the Earth’s landmass, when in reality they occupy a mere 5%. When Antarctica is excluded (as it often is), Canada and Russia’s visual share of landmass jumps to about 40%!
Canada is the second largest country in the world, but not by much. Here is an “at scale” look at Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
Africa, South Asia, and South America all appear much smaller in relation to countries further from the equator.
And from a North American perspective, countries such as Australia and Indonesia appear much smaller than they actually are. Comparing the landmasses on the same latitude as Canada helps put sizes into perspective.
Greenland is the world’s largest island, but looking at its hyper-exaggerated depiction in the map below, you’d be forgiven for wondering why it isn’t a stand-alone continent. In reality, Greenland is about fourteen times smaller than Africa.
Is Bigger Better?
Though Mercator’s map was never intended for use as the default wall map in schools around the world, it has shaped the worldviews of billions of people. Critics of the map – and similar projections – suggest that distortion reinforces a sense of colonialist superiority. As well, the amount of territory a country occupies is often correlated with power and access to natural resources, and map distortions can have the effect of inadvertently diminishing nations closer to the equator.
A prime example of this argument is the “True Size of Africa” graphic, which demonstrated to millions of people just how big the continent is.
Growing awareness of map distortion is translating into concrete change. Boston public schools, for example, recently switched to the Gall-Peters projection, which more accurately depicts the true size of landmasses.
In our society we unconsciously equate size with importance and even power.
– Salvatore Natoli, Educational Affairs Director, AAG
The Road to Equal-Area Mapping
In 1805, mathematician and astronomer, Karl Mollweide, created a namesake projection that trades accuracy of angles and shape for accuracy of proportion. The Mollweide projection has inspired many other attempts at a user-friendly equal area map.
John Paul Goode’s attempt, known as the Goode Homolosine Projection, took this concept a step further by adding interruptions at strategic locations to help reduce the distortion of continents. The resulting shape is sometimes referred to as an “orange peel map”.
Another evolution in cartography was the Dymaxion map, invented by Buckminster Fuller and patented in 1946. In this version, the continents are no longer in their familiar positions – however, there is more spacial fidelity than in previous projection methods. We’re able to see the true proportions of Africa, Northern Canada, Antarctica, and other distortion hot spots.
The Dymaxion map wasn’t created for purely practical purposes. Fuller believed that humans would be better equipped to address global challenges if they were given a way to visualize the Earth’s continents in a contiguous manner.
The AuthaGraph Map
Using a new map-making method called AuthaGraph, Japanese architect, Hajime Narukawa, may have created the most accurate map of the world yet. AuthaGraph divides the globe into 96 triangles, transfers them to a tetrahedron and unfolds into a rectangle.
The end result? Landmasses and seas are more accurately proportioned than in traditional projections.
The biggest downfall of the AuthaGraph map is that longitude and latitude lines are no longer a tidy grid. As well, continents on the map are repositioned in a way that will be unfamiliar to a population that is already geographically challenged.
That said, depicting our round world on a flat surface will always come with some trade-offs. As demand grows for a true equal-area map, it will be exciting to see what the next generation of map projections have to offer.
At Risk: The Geography of America’s Senior Population
The U.S. senior population is much more vulnerable to COVID-19. Which states and cities have the most people in this at-risk age group?
At Risk: The U.S. Senior Population
The U.S. now has the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases globally, and modelling predicts that the country could see about 100,000 to 200,000 total deaths. Unfortunately, adults aged 65 or older—about 16% of the U.S. population—are at much higher risk of both severe illness and death.
Today’s chart uses U.S. Census Bureau data to map the percentage of the population that is 65 years or older by state. It also outlines the urban areas that are most heavily skewed towards this older age group.
Proportion of Seniors by State
Below is the full breakdown of the U.S. senior population by state, using the latest available data from 2018.
Maine tops the list with 20.6% of its population comprising adults age 65 or older. At the other end of the scale, Utah’s seniors make up only 11.1% of its population.
|Rank||State||65+, % of Population||65+, Total Population|
Notably, Florida has the second highest percentage and number of seniors nationwide. Its governor just announced the state’s stay-at-home order on April 1st, after taking criticism for refusing to do so earlier.
New York, the current global hot spot of COVID-19, is close to the national average with 16.4% of its population aged 65 or older. However, with over 3.2 million seniors, the sheer volume of individuals needing hospitalization has already put a strain on the state’s healthcare system. Governor Andrew Cuomo says the state will run out of its current supply of ventilators in less than a week.
The Most Vulnerable Urban Areas
On a local level, which places have the highest proportion of seniors? Based on all urban areas* with a population of 250,000 or more, here’s how the top 50 looks:
|Rank||Urban Area||65+, % of Population||65+, Total Population|
|1||Bonita Springs, FL||38.2%||135,286|
|3||Barnstable Town, MA||29.4%||74,614|
|4||Palm Coast–Daytona Beach–Port Orange, FL||28.3%||110,355|
|5||Myrtle Beach–Socastee, SC–NC||27.3%||74,783|
|6||Cape Coral, FL||27.0%||175,483|
|7||Indio–Cathedral City, CA||26.0%||95,054|
|8||Port St. Lucie, FL||25.6%||110,883|
|9||Palm Bay–Melbourne, FL||22.9%||114,347|
|15||Mission Viejo–Lake Forest–San Clemente, CA||19.0%||115,891|
|16||Tampa–St. Petersburg, FL||18.9%||516,269|
|25||Urban Honolulu, HI||17.7%||148,045|
|27||New Haven, CT||17.6%||97,888|
|34||Santa Rosa, CA||17.1%||55,094|
|49||St. Louis, MO–IL||16.2%||347,537|
*Urban areas consist of a downtown core and adjacent territories
With 6 areas in the top 10, Florida is quite vulnerable at the local level as well. Other states with multiple areas on the list include Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.
The Senior Population of Current U.S. Hotspots
To determine the vulnerability of current COVID-19 hotspots, we compared U.S. counties with a high number of cases per capita against their percentage of seniors.
Counties at the bottom left have low readings on both metrics. Conversely, counties in the top right have a dangerous combination: a high concentration of cases and vulnerable seniors.
Multiple counties in New York occupy the top right quadrant, with Yonkers being the worst off. Los Angeles county, which has a similar population to all counties in New York City, has fewer cases and a smaller proportion of seniors.
To date, outbreaks have been mostly focused in urban areas where populations tend to be younger. However, as COVID-19 begins infiltrating rural areas, healthcare systems will need to contend with both older age groups and fewer resources.
The Emissions Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns, As Shown by Satellites
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been all-consuming, these satellite images show its unintended environmental impacts on NO₂ emissions.
The Emissions Impact of Coronavirus Lockdowns
There’s a high chance you’re reading this while practicing social distancing, or while your corner of the world is under some type of advised or enforced lockdown.
While these are necessary measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, such economic interruption is unprecedented in many ways—resulting in some surprising side effects.
The Evidence is in NO₂ Emissions
Nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) emissions, a major air pollutant, are closely linked to factory output and vehicles operating on the road.
As both industry and transport come to a halt during this pandemic, NO₂ emissions can be a good indicator of global economic activity—and the changes are visible from space.
These images from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), as well as satellite footage from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), show a drastic decline in NO₂ emissions over recent months, particularly across Italy and China.
NO₂ Emissions Across Italy
In Italy, the number of active COVID-19 cases has surpassed China (including the death toll). Amid emergency actions to lock down the entire nation, everything from schools and shops, to restaurants and even some churches, are closed.
Italy is also an industrial hub, with the sector accounting for nearly 24% of GDP. With many Italians urged to work from home if possible, visible economic activity has dropped considerably.
This 10-day moving average animation (from January 1st—March 11th, 2020) of nitrogen dioxide emissions across Europe clearly demonstrates how the drop in Italy’s economic activity has impacted the environment.
Source: European Space Agency (ESA)
That’s not all: a drop in boat traffic also means that Venice’s canals are clear for the time being, as small fish have begun inhabiting the waterways again. Experts are cautious to note that this does not necessarily mean the water quality is better.
NO₂ Emissions Across China
The emissions changes above China are possibly even more obvious to the eye. China is the world’s most important manufacturing hub and a significant contributor to greenhouse gases globally. But in the month following Lunar New Year (a week-long festival in early February), satellite imagery painted a different picture.
Source: NASA Earth Observatory
NO₂ emissions around the Hubei province, the original epicenter of the virus, steeply dropped as factories were forced to shutter their doors for the time being.
What’s more, there were measurable effects in the decline of other emission types from the drop in coal use during the same time, compared to years prior.
Back to the Status Quo?
In recent weeks, China has been able to flatten the curve of its total COVID-19 cases. As a result, the government is beginning to ease its restrictions—and it’s clear that social and economic activities are starting to pick back up in March.
Source: European Space Agency (ESA)
With the regular chain of events beginning to resume, it remains to be seen whether NO₂ emissions will rebound right back to their pre-pandemic levels.
This bounce-back effect—which can sometimes reverse any overall drop in emissions—is [called] “revenge pollution”. And in China, it has precedent.
—Li Shuo, Senior climate policy advisor, Greenpeace East Asia
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