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Maps

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

Mapped: The Territorial Evolution of the U.S.

From the Thirteen Colonies to present-day USA, this animation is a detailed look at how borders have shifted throughout the nation’s history.

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Mapped: The Territorial Evolution of the U.S.

The sun (almost) never sets on the American Empire.

The United States is the third largest country in the world, with a vast territory extending beyond the borders of the contiguous states. To be exact, the United States is made up of 50 states, nine uninhabited territories, five self-governing territories, one incorporated territory, and one federal district (Washington D.C.). The boundaries of the country haven’t changed much in recent years, but the lines on the map have shifted numerous times in history, through both negotiation and bloodshed.

Today’s above animation, by u/Golbwiki, is the perfect visual aid to understand how the United States evolved from the Thirteen Colonies to its current form.

Here are five of the largest expansion events in U.S. history.

us territorial expansion map

1803: Louisiana Purchase

Napoléon Bonaparte didn’t just have a huge impact on Europe, he also altered the course of history in the New World as well. The French General was waging an expensive war in Europe, and began to view the Louisiana Territory as a burden – as well as a potential source of income. In 1803, he offered up all 828,000 square miles for the famously low price of $15 million.

This massive land purchase comprises nearly 25% of the current territory of the United States, stretching from New Orleans all the way up to Montana and North Dakota.

1819: Adams–Onís Treaty

Spanish explorers first established a presence in Florida as far back as 1565, but 250 years later, Spain had done little to cement its foothold in the region. The Spanish realized they were in poor position to defend Florida should the U.S. decide to seize it.

In 1819, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams negotiated the signing of the Florida Purchase Treaty, which officially transferred Florida to the United States after years of negotiations. There was no official cost of purchase, but the U.S. government agreed to assume approximately $5 million of claims by U.S. citizens against Spain.

1845: Texas Annexation

The newly created Republic of Texas, which broke away from Mexico in the Texas Revolution, was peacefully annexed by the United States in 1845. In one fell swoop, the U.S. acquired 389,000 square miles of former Mexican territory.

1848: Mexican Cession

Shortly after the Texas Annexation, tensions between Mexico and the U.S. flared up anew.

Congress declared war on Mexico over a boundary dispute in 1846, and after a relatively brief armed conflict – known as the Mexican–American War – the two countries signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.

The treaty recognized Texas as a U.S. state, and the United States took control of a huge parcel of land that includes the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as portions of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Mexico received $15 million in the arrangement, but saw the size of their territory halved.

1867: Alaska Purchase

In the aftermath of the Crimean War, Alexander II began exploring the possibility of selling Alaska. Similar to Spain’s foothold in Florida earlier in the century, the Russian Emperor recognized the possibility of American incursions into the territory, which they were not in a good position to defend against.

We must foresee that [the U.S.,] will take the afore-mentioned colonies from us and we shall not be able to regain them.

– Grand Duke Konstantin of Russia

After an all-night negotiation session on March 30, 1867, Alaska was sold to the United States for $7.2 million – the equivalent of $109 million in 2018. Alaska officially became a state in 1959.

Scratching the Surface

The examples above are only a brief overview of the complex evolution of shifting territorial claims in America.

For those who want to take a deep dive into the shifting borders of America, here is an extremely thorough animation, also by the same author:

expansion of U.S. territory

Of course, colonial expansion in North America didn’t occur in a vacuum. For an Native American perspective on this topic, check out this animated map.

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Energy

Mapped: Fossil Fuel Production by Country

These four animated cartograms show the nations leading the world in fossil fuel production, in terms of oil, gas, coal, and total hydrocarbons.

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Fossil fuels exist as a double-edged sword for most countries.

On one hand, they still make up a dominant piece of the current energy mix, and oil is still seen as a crucial resource for achieving geopolitical significance. It’s also no secret that fossil fuels are a driver for many economies around the world.

But with governments and corporations counting carbon emissions and mounting concerns about climate change, reliance on these same fuels will not last forever. As attitudes and policies evolve, they will continue to see a reduced role going forward.

Visualizing Fossil Fuels by Country

So, which countries are pumping out the most hydrocarbons?

Today’s cartograms come from 911Metallurgist, and the animated maps resize each country based on their share of global fossil fuel production.

Below, you’ll see four cartograms that cover oil, gas, coal, and total fossil fuel production.

Crude Oil Production

The United States leads this category, producing about 18% of the world’s total oil:

Oil production by country

Although the U.S. is the number one producer globally, it should be noted that the country doesn’t have the same quantity of oil reserves as other leading nations.

Weirdly, Venezuela has the exact opposite problem. The country has the most oil reserves in the world, but currently only sits as its 12th biggest producer.

Natural Gas Production

In terms of gas, the U.S. leads again with a 20% share of global production. Russia is also a gas powerhouse, with a 17.3% share.

Natural gas production by country

After the U.S. and Russia, it’s a fairly steep dropoff in terms of natural gas production. Countries like Iran, Canada, Qatar, and China are the next most significant players, but they each only produce 4-6% of the global total.

Coal Production

Coal use may be on the decline, but China still produces a whopping 45% of the world’s coal.

Coal production by country

China’s current relationship with coal is an interesting one.

Every year, coal has become less important in China’s energy mix – in 2011 it represented 70% of energy consumption, and by 2018 it had fell to 59%.

Despite this meaningful progress, China’s economy has grown so fast, that coal use has essentially held steady in absolute terms. Meanwhile, the country’s production of coal has actually grown slightly over the same timeframe.

Total Fossil Fuel Production

Finally, here is the sum of all three above categories, converted to metric tonnes:

Total fossil fuel production by country

The United States produces 20% of all global fossil fuels, with Russia and Iran rounding out the top three. After that comes Canada, which produces just under 5% of all fossil fuels globally.

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