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The Problem With Our Maps

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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

The Mercator Projection Map

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.

Canada, USA, Mexico Size Comparison Map

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.

Indonesia and Australia distorion

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.

Greenland map distortion

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.

true size of africa map graphic

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.

Gall-Peters map

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.

Mollweide Map Projection

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”.

Goode Homolosine Map Projection

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.

Dymaxion map

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.

Authagraph map

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.

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History

Mapping the Spread of Words Along Trade Routes

When goods traveled to new regions, their native names sometimes hitchhiked along with them. This map shows the spread of loanwords around the world.

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Mapping the Spread of Words Along Trade Routes

In the early history of international trade, when exotic goods traveled to new regions, their native names sometimes hitchhiked along with them.

Naturally, the Germans have a term – Wanderwörter – for these extraordinary loanwords that journey around the globe, mutating subtly along the way.

Today’s map, produced by Haisam Hussein for Lapham’s Quarterly, charts the flow of Wanderwörter along global trade routes.

Tea

China’s export dominance over tea influenced how people around the world refer to their steeped beverages.

The spread of tea along the Silk Road from Mandarin-speaking Northern China resulted in much of Asia and Africa having similar sounding words for tea. Chá evolved into the chai widely consumed in India and surrounding areas today.

Tea’s other major trade route, through Min-speaking Southern China, spread the pronunciation that became the standard around Europe. This is why we see such striking similarities between thé (French), thee (Dutch), tee (German), (Spanish), and (Italian).

Tomatoes

Sometimes, a word’s journey isn’t completely linear.

In the case of tomatoes, the Italians’ decision to dub the red fruit pomodoro, or golden apple, led to a linguistic fork in the road. This is the reason the English name for tomatoes is still similar to the Aztec term tomatl, but in Russian, pomidor can be traced back to Italian.

Cotton

Many people in North America would be surprised to learn that “cotton” is a direct link to the Arabic word al-qutn.

Coca

When the Spanish brought coca from South America and spread it into the global market, its easy-to-pronounce name tagged along for the entire journey. Though its spelling may differ across cultures, say the word “coca” in many countries and people will likely know what you’re referring to.

A Small World After All

Most of us are vaguely aware that parts of our langauge consist of loanwords from other regions and cultures, but seeing the spread of language in map form is a powerful reminder that the globalization as we know it is a continuation of centuries of commercial and cultural exchange.

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Chart of the Week

Visualizing Africa’s Free Trade Ambitions

The Gambia recently became the latest country to ratify the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), helping the landmark agreement reach critical mass to move forward.

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africa free trade

Visualizing Africa’s Free Trade Ambitions

A united African continent working towards common goals would be a major force on the global economic stage.

To this end, nations in the region have been working towards an ambitious plan to create the world’s largest trade area. The Gambia recently became the latest country to ratify the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), helping the agreement reach critical mass to move forward.

Today’s graphic helps put the region – and the status of AfCFTA – into perspective.

The Patchwork Problem

One key to unlocking the region’s economic potential is making it easier for Africa’s 55 countries to trade with one another.

Currently, Africa is a patchwork of regulations and tariffs, and trade between countries has suffered as a result. For example, only 10% of Nigeria’s annual trade activity is with other African countries. This is a surprising given the country’s dominant economic standing and location firmly in the center of the continent.

As a whole, Africa’s intra-continental trade level hovers at just around 20%, while nations in Europe and Asia are at 69% and 59%, respectively. Clearly, there is a lot of room for growth.

What is AfCFTA?

AfCFTA is the biggest free trade agreement since the establishment of the World Trade Organization.

The objective of the agreement is to create a single continental market for goods and services, with free movement of business people and investments.

Last year, 44 African leaders signed an agreement to ratify AfCFTA, with half that number needed to move the agreement forward. Earlier this week, The Gambia was the 22nd country to announce that its government has ratified the agreement, meeting the threshold to officially put the wheels in motion.

We have witnessed a historic moment for the African Continent. AfCFTA is now set to become operational within
the month, creating a single continental market for goods
and services.

– Mark-Anthony Johnson, CEO, JIC Holdings

The good news for the agreement is that many of Africa’s largest economies – including Egypt and South Africa – are already on board. There is, however, one significant holdout.

The Elephant in the Room

Even though the threshold for pushing AfCFTA forward has been reached, Nigeria’s lack of commitment is still a major blow to the strength and credibility of the agreement.

Nigeria’s situation is complicated. The country’s economic prospects are bright, and Lagos is on a trajectory to become the world’s largest city over the next few decades. On the other hand, there is fierce opposition from labor unions, and the country is home to largest concentration of people living in extreme poverty in the world.

[AfCFTA is] an extremely dangerous and radioactive
neo-liberal policy initiative.

– Ayuba Wabba, President of NLC, Nigeria’s largest labor union

While the majority of African nations appear to be on board with the plan to enact AfCFTA, it remains to be seen whether Nigeria comes along for the ride or decides to go it alone.

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