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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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Chart of the Week

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?

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U.S. Senior Population

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.

RankState65+, % of Population65+, Total Population
1Maine20.6%276,069
2Florida20.5%4,358,784
3West Virginia20.0%361,216
4Vermont19.8%123,875
5Montana18.8%200,239
6Delaware18.7%180,756
7Hawaii18.4%261,467
8Pensylvannia18.2%2,332,369
9New Hampshire18.1%245,156
10South Carolina17.7%899,754
11Oregon17.6%739,611
12Arizona17.6%1,259,103
13New Mexico17.6%368,480
14Rhode Island17.3%182,645
15Conneticut17.2%613,147
16Michigan17.2%1,720,453
17Ohio17.1%1,996,163
18Iowa17.0%537,818
19Wisconsin17.0%986,483
20Alabama17.0%829,663
21Missouri16.9%1,035,074
22Arkansas16.8%507,676
23Wyoming16.7%96,557
24South Dakota16.6%146,358
25Massachusetts16.5%1,137,541
26Kentucky16.4%731,392
27New York16.4%3,212,065
28Tennesse16.3%1,104,797
29North Carolina16.3%1,688,574
30New Jersey16.1%1,438,289
31Idaho15.9%279,441
32Kansas15.9%462,191
34Mississipi15.9%474,423
33Minnesota15.8%888,634
36Nebraska15.8%303,998
35Indiana15.7%1,051,146
37Nevada15.7%475,120
38Oklahoma15.7%619,601
39Illinois15.6%1,990,548
40Louisiana15.5%720,610
42Virginia15.5%1,318,225
41Maryland15.4%931,041
43Washington15.4%1,163,987
44North Dakota15.3%116,433
45California14.3%5,667,337
46Colorado14.2%807,855
47Georgia13.8%1,456,428
48Texas12.5%3,599,599
49Alaska11.9%88,000
50Utah11.1%351,297

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:

RankUrban Area65+, % of Population65+, Total Population
1Bonita Springs, FL38.2%135,286
2Sarasota–Bradenton, FL33.2%242,613
3Barnstable Town, MA29.4%74,614
4Palm Coast–Daytona Beach–Port Orange, FL28.3%110,355
5Myrtle Beach–Socastee, SC–NC27.3%74,783
6Cape Coral, FL27.0%175,483
7Indio–Cathedral City, CA26.0%95,054
8Port St. Lucie, FL25.6%110,883
9Palm Bay–Melbourne, FL22.9%114,347
10Youngstown, OH–PA21.0%78,739
11Asheville, NC20.9%65,540
12Pittsburgh, PA19.6%335,546
13Canton, OH19.6%54,214
14Scranton, PA19.1%71,876
15Mission Viejo–Lake Forest–San Clemente, CA19.0%115,891
16Tampa–St. Petersburg, FL18.9%516,269
17Tucson, AZ18.8%165,399
18Lancaster, PA18.5%77,538
19Cleveland, OH18.4%324,707
20Miami, FL18.3%1,117,926
21Buffalo, NY18.1%168,121
22Dayton, OH18.0%130,722
23Harrisburg, PA18.0%83,201
24Wilmington, NC17.8%45,457
25Urban Honolulu, HI17.7%148,045
26Akron, OH17.6%99,010
27New Haven, CT17.6%97,888
28Rochester, NY17.5%125,516
29Peoria, IL17.5%44,722
30Allentown, PA–NJ17.4%119,508
31Concord, CA17.4%115,460
32Chattanooga, TN–GA17.4%69,098
33Flint, MI17.2%59,525
34Santa Rosa, CA17.1%55,094
35Lakeland, FL17.1%51,107
36Davenport, IA–IL17.1%48,387
37Providence, RI–MA17.0%204,148
38Rockford, IL16.9%48,370
39Springfield, MA–CT16.8%105,694
40Knoxville, TN16.8%101,332
41Albany–Schenectady, NY16.8%100,756
42Albuquerque, NM16.7%126,081
43Hartford, CT16.6%153,367
44Toledo, OH–MI16.6%82,480
45Pensacola, FL–AL16.6%62,216
46Bridgeport–Stamford, CT–NY16.5%156,035
47Syracuse, NY16.4%66,818
48Detroit, MI16.2%608,427
49St. Louis, MO–IL16.2%347,537
50Trenton, NJ16.2%47,803

*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.

senior population vs covid-19 outbreak

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.

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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.

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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.

no2 emissions wuhan china
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.

China Coal Use FInal

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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