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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.

Unfortunately, billions of people around the world have a skewed perception of the true size of countries thanks to a cartographic technique called the Mercator projection. Used just about everywhere, from classroom wall maps to navigation apps, the Mercator projection 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 in a seamless way in online mapping applications.

That said, in this projection style, the sizes of landmasses become increasingly distorted the further away from the equator they get. One trade-off for the utility of Mercator’s map is that it 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.

In our society we unconsciously equate size with importance and even power. – Salvatore Natoli, Educational Affairs Director, AAG

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

As well, Google, whose map app is used by approximately one billion people per month, took the bold step of using different projections for different purposes in 2018. The Earth is depicted as a globe at further zoom levels, sidestepping map projection issues completely and displaying the world as it actually is: round.

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.

Map It Yourself

Looking to learn more about maps and map projections? This fantastic tool, created by Florian Ledermann, allows users to take a vast selection of projection styles, and modify them in different ways. This hands-on approach is a fun way to learn how the shape of landmasses shift as the projection changes.

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Personal Finance

Mapped: The Income a Family Needs to Live Comfortably in Every U.S. State

Families in expensive states require over $270,000 annually to live comfortably.

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A map showing the income that two working adults with two children need to live comfortably in each U.S. state.

The Income a Family Needs to Live Comfortably in Every U.S. State

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Families in the top five most expensive U.S. states require an annual income exceeding $270,000 to live comfortably.

This visualization illustrates the income necessary for two working adults with two children to maintain a comfortable lifestyle in each state.

“Comfortable” is defined as the income needed to cover a 50/30/20 budget, with 50% allocated to necessities like housing and utilities, 30% to discretionary spending, and 20% to savings or investments.

The calculations for family income needed in each state were done by SmartAsset, using the cost of necessities sourced from the MIT Living Wage Calculator, last updated on Feb. 14, 2024.

Massachusetts Tops the List

Massachusetts is the most expensive state to live comfortably in, requiring a total family income of about $301,184. Hawaii ($294,611) comes in second, followed by Connecticut ($279,885).

Housing is one main reason Massachusetts is an expensive state to live in, particularly in the Boston area. In addition, the state also has a high cost of living, including expenses such as healthcare and utilities.

RankStateIncome for 2 working adults raising 2 children
1Massachusetts$301,184
2Hawaii$294,611
3Connecticut$279,885
4New York$278,970
5California$276,723
6Colorado$264,992
7Washington$257,421
8Oregon$257,338
9New Jersey$251,181
10Rhode Island$249,267
11Vermont$248,352
12Minnesota$244,774
13New Hampshire$244,109
14Alaska$242,611
15Maryland$239,450
16Nevada$237,286
17Virginia$235,206
18Illinois$231,962
19Arizona$230,630
20Pennsylvania$230,464
21Maine$229,549
22Delaware$228,966
23Wisconsin$225,056
24Utah$218,483
25Michigan$214,490
26Nebraska$213,075
27Georgia$212,826
28Montana$211,411
28Iowa$211,411
30Idaho$211,245
31North Carolina$209,331
31Ohio$209,331
33Florida$209,082
34Indiana$206,003
35New Mexico$203,923
36Wyoming$203,424
37Missouri$202,259
38North Dakota$202,176
39Texas$201,344
40South Carolina$200,762
41Kansas$196,768
42Tennessee$195,770
43Oklahoma$194,106
44Alabama$193,606
45South Dakota$192,608
46Kentucky$190,112
47Louisiana$189,613
48West Virginia$189,363
49Arkansas$180,794
50Mississippi$177,798

Meanwhile, Mississippi is the least expensive state for a family to live comfortably, requiring $177,798 per year. Arkansas ($180,794) comes in second, followed by West Virginia ($189,363). In common, all these states share low prices of housing.

Learn More About Cost of Living From Visual Capitalist

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out this graphic, which ranks the median down payment for a house by U.S. state.

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