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.
Wired World: 35 Years of Submarine Cables in One Map
Watch the explosive growth of the global submarine cable network, and learn who’s funding the next generation of cables.
You could be reading this article from nearly anywhere in the world and there’s a good chance it loaded in mere seconds.
Long gone are the days when images would load pixel row by pixel row. Now, even high-quality video is instantly accessible from almost everywhere. How did the internet get so fast? Because it’s moving at the speed of light.
The Information Superhighway
The miracle of modern fiber optics can be traced to a single man, Narinder Singh Kapany. The young physicist was skeptical when his professors asserted that light ‘always travels in a straight line’. His explorations into the behavior of light eventually led to the creation of fiber optics—essentially, beaming light through a thin glass tube.
The next step to using fiber optics as a means of communication was lowering the cable’s attenuation rate. Throughout the 1960-70s, companies made gains in manufacturing, reducing the number of impurities and allowing light to cross great distances without a dramatic decrease in signal intensity.
By the mid-1980s, long distance fiber optic cables had finally reached the feasibility stage.
Crossing the Pond
The first intercontinental fiber optic cable was strung across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean in 1988. The cable—known as TAT-8*—was spearheaded by three companies; AT&T, France Télécom, and British Telecom. The cable was able to carry the equivalent of 40,000 telephone channels, a ten-fold increase over its galvanic predecessor, TAT-7.
Once the kinks of the new cable were worked out, the floodgates were open. During the course of the 1990s, many more cables hit the ocean floor. By the dawn of the new millennium, every populated continent on Earth was connected by fiber optic cables. The physical network of the internet was beginning to take shape.
As today’s video from ESRI shows, the early 2000s saw a boom in undersea cable development, reflecting the uptick in internet usage around globe. In 2001 alone, eight new cables connected North America and Europe.
From 2016-2020, over 100 new cables were laid with an estimated value of $14 billion. Now, even the most remote Polynesian islands have access to high-speed internet thanks to undersea cables.
*TAT-8 does not appear in the video above as it was retired in 2002.
The Shifting Nature of Cable Construction
Even though nearly every corner of the globe is now physically connected, the rate of cable construction is not slowing down.
This is due to the increasing capacity of new cables and our appetite for high-quality video content. New cables are so efficient that the majority of potential capacity along major cable routes will come from cables that are less than five years old.
Traditionally, a consortium of telecom companies or governments would fund cable construction, but tech companies are increasingly funding their own submarine cable networks.
Amazon, Microsoft and Google own close to 65% market share in cloud data storage, so it’s understandable that they’d want to control the physical means of transporting that data as well.
These three companies now own 63,605 miles of submarine cable. While laying cable is a costly endeavor, it’s necessary to meet surging demand—content providers’ share of data transmission skyrocketed from around 8% to nearly 40% over the past decade.
A Bright Future for Dark Fiber
At the same time, more aging cables will be taken offline. Even though signals are no longer traveling through this network of “dark fiber”, it’s still being put to productive use. It turns out that undersea telecom cables make a very effective seismic network, helping researchers study offshore earthquakes and the geologic structures on the ocean floor.
Mapped: The World’s Biggest Oil Discoveries Since 1868
Since 1868, there had been 1,232 oil discoveries over 500 million barrels of oil. This map plots these discoveries to reveal global energy hot spots.
Mapped: The World’s Biggest Oil Discoveries Since 1868
Oil and gas discoveries excite markets and nations with the prospect of profits, tax revenues, and jobs. However, geological processes did not distribute them equally throughout the Earth’s crust and their mere presence does not guarantee a windfall for whatever nation under which they lie.
Entire economies and nations have been built on the discovery and exploitation of oil and gas, while some nations have misused this wealth─or projected growth just never materialized.
The 20 Biggest Oil Discoveries
This map includes 1,232 discoveries of recoverable reserves over 500 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) From 1868 to 2010.
The discoveries cluster in certain parts of the world, covering 46 countries, and are of significant magnitude for each country’s economy. The average discovery is worth 1.4% of a country’s GDP today, based on the cash value from their production or net present value (NPV).
Of the total 1,232 discoveries, these are the 20 largest oil and gas fields:
|Field||Onshore/Offshore||Location||Discovery||Production start||Recoverable oil, past and future (billion barrels)|
|Ghawar Field||Onshore||Saudi Arabia||1948||1951||88-104|
|Mesopotamian Foredeep Basin||Onshore||Kuwait||n/a||n/a||66-72|
|Bolivar Coastal Field||Onshore||Venezuela||1917||1922||30-32|
|Safaniya Field||Offshore||Kuwait/Saudi Arabia||1951||1957||30|
|Upper Zakum Field||Offshore||Abu Dhabi, UAE||1963||1967||21|
|Romashkino Field||Onshore||Russia Volga-Ural||1948||1949||16-17|
|Shaybah Field||Onshore||Saudi Arabia||1998||1998||15|
|West Qurna Field||Onshore||Iraq||1973||2012||15-21|
Russia, West Siberia
The location of these deposits reveals a certain pattern to geopolitical flashpoints and their importance to the global economy.
While these discoveries have brought immense advantages in the form of cheap fuel and massive revenues, they have also altered and challenged how nations govern their natural wealth.
The Future of Resource Wealth: A Curse or a Blessing?
A ‘presource curse’ could follow in the wake of the discovery, whereby predictions of projected growth and feelings of euphoria turn into disappointment.
An oil discovery can impose detrimental consequences on an economy long before a single barrel leaves the ground. Ideally, a discovery should increase the economic output of a country that claims the oil. However, after major discoveries, the projected growth sometimes does not always materialize as predicted.
Getting from discovery to sustained prosperity depends on a number of steps. Countries must secure investment to develop a project to production, and government policy must respond by preparing the economy for an inflow of investment and foreign currency. However, this is a challenging prospect, as the appetite for these massive projects appears to be waning.
In a world working towards reducing its dependence on fossil fuels, what will happen to countries that depend on oil wealth when demand begins to dwindle?
Countries can no longer assume their oil and gas resources will translate into reliable wealth — instead, it is how you manage what you have now that counts.
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