The Problem With Our Maps
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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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Misc

The Top 10 Largest Nuclear Explosions, Visualized

Just how powerful are nuclear bombs? Here’s a look at the top 10 largest nuclear explosions.

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infographic comparing the top 10 largest nuclear explosions

The Top 10 Largest Nuclear Explosions, Visualized

Just how powerful are nuclear explosions?

The U.S.’ Trinity test in 1945, the first-ever nuclear detonation, released around 19 kilotons of explosive energy. The explosion instantly vaporized the tower it stood on and turned the surrounding sand into green glass, before sending a powerful heatwave across the desert.

As the Cold War escalated in the years after WWII, the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested bombs that were at least 500 times greater in explosive power. This infographic visually compares the 10 largest nuclear explosions in history.

The Anatomy of a Nuclear Explosion

After exploding, nuclear bombs create giant fireballs that generate a blinding flash and a searing heatwave. The fireball engulfs the surrounding air, getting larger as it rises like a hot air balloon.

As the fireball and heated air rise, they are flattened by cooler, denser air high up in the atmosphere, creating the mushroom “cap” structure. At the base of the cloud, the fireball causes physical destruction by sending a shockwave moving outwards at thousands of miles an hour.

anatomy of a nuclear explosion's mushroom cloud

A strong updraft of air and dirt particles through the center of the cloud forms the “stem” of the mushroom cloud. In most atomic explosions, changing atmospheric pressure and water condensation create rings that surround the cloud, also known as Wilson clouds.

Over time, the mushroom cloud dissipates. However, it leaves behind radioactive fallout in the form of nuclear particles, debris, dust, and ash, causing lasting damage to the local environment. Because the particles are lightweight, global wind patterns often distribute them far beyond the place of detonation.

With this context in mind, here’s a look at the 10 largest nuclear explosions.

#10: Ivy Mike (1952)

In 1952, the U.S. detonated the Mike device—the first-ever hydrogen bomb—as part of Operation Ivy. Hydrogen bombs rely on nuclear fusion to amplify their explosions, producing much more explosive energy than atomic bombs that use nuclear fission.

Weighing 140,000 pounds (63,500kg), the Ivy Mike test generated a yield of 10,400 kilotons, equivalent to the explosive power of 10.4 million tons of TNT. The explosion was 700 times more powerful than Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

#9: Castle Romeo (1954)

Castle Romeo was part of the Operation Castle series of U.S. nuclear tests taking place on the Marshall Islands. Shockingly, the U.S. was running out of islands to conduct tests, making Romeo the first-ever test conducted on a barge in the ocean.

At 11,000 kilotons, the test produced more than double its predicted explosive energy of 4,000 kilotons. Its fireball, as seen below, is one of the most iconic images ever captured of a nuclear explosion.

iconic image of the castle romeo nuclear explosion of 1954

#8: Soviet Test #123 (1961)

Test #123 was one of the 57 tests conducted by the Soviet Union in 1961. Most of these tests were conducted on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in Northwestern Russia. The bomb yielded 12,500 kilotons of explosive energy, enough to vaporize everything within a 2.1 mile (3.5km) radius.

#7: Castle Yankee (1954)

Castle Yankee was the fifth test in Operation Castle. The explosion marked the second-most powerful nuclear test by the U.S.

It yielded 13,500 kilotons, much higher than the predicted yield of up to 10,000 kilotons. Within four days of the blast, its fallout reached Mexico City, roughly 7,100 miles (11,400km) away.

#6: Castle Bravo (1954)

Castle Bravo, the first of the Castle Operation series, accidentally became the most powerful nuclear bomb tested by the U.S.

Due to a design error, the explosive energy from the bomb reached 15,000 kilotons, two and a half times what was expected. The mushroom cloud climbed up to roughly 25 miles (40km).

As a result of the test, an area of 7,000 square miles was contaminated, and inhabitants of nearby atolls were exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout. Traces of the blast were found in Australia, India, Japan, and Europe.

#5, #4, #3: Soviet Tests #173, #174, #147 (1962)

In 1962, the Soviet Union conducted 78 nuclear tests, three of which produced the fifth, fourth, and third-most powerful explosions in history. Tests #173, #174, and #147 each yielded around 20,000 kilotons. Due to the absolute secrecy of these tests, no photos or videos have been released.

#2: Soviet Test #219 (1962)

Test #219 was an atmospheric nuclear test carried out using an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), with the bomb exploding at a height of 2.3 miles (3.8km) above sea level. It was the second-most powerful nuclear explosion, with a yield of 24,200 kilotons and a destructive radius of ~25 miles (41km).

#1: Tsar Bomba (1961)

Tsar Bomba, also called Big Ivan, needed a specially designed plane because it was too heavy to carry on conventional aircraft. The bomb was attached to a giant parachute to give the plane time to fly away.

The explosion, yielding 50,000 kilotons, obliterated an abandoned village 34 miles (55km) away and generated a 5.0-5.25 magnitude earthquake in the surrounding region. Initially, it was designed as a 100,000 kiloton bomb, but its yield was cut to half its potential by the Soviet Union. Tsar Bomba’s mushroom cloud breached through the stratosphere to reach a height of over 37 miles (60km), roughly six times the flying height of commercial aircraft.

The two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had devastating consequences, and their explosive yields were only a fraction of the 10 largest explosions. The power of modern nuclear weapons makes their scale of destruction truly unfathomable, and as history suggests, the outcomes can be unpredictable.

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Politics

Mapped: The State of Global Democracy in 2022

We map the state of global democracy, as the Democracy Index hits its lowest point since the inception of the index in 2006.

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Mapped: The State of Democracy Around the World

The world’s (almost) eight billion people live under a wide variety of political and cultural circumstances. In broad terms, those circumstances can be measured and presented on a sliding scale between “free” and “not free”—the subtext being that democracy lies on one end, and authoritarianism on the other.

This year’s Democracy Index report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), is one such attempt to apply a score to countries based on how closely they measure up to democratic ideals.

According to EIU, the state of democracy is at its lowest point since the index began in 2006, blamed in part on the pandemic restrictions that saw many countries struggling to balance public health with personal freedom.

In this year’s report, the EIU reported a drop of the average global score from 5.37 to 5.28, the biggest drop since 2010 after the global financial crisis. This translates into a sobering fact: only 46% of the population is living in a democracy “of some sort.”

Let’s dive a bit deeper into what this means.

Percentage of Population by Regime Type

In 2021, 37% of the world’s population still lived under an authoritarian regime. Afghanistan tops this list, followed by Myanmar, North Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Syria. Of course, China has a big share of the population living under this style of regime.

On the other side of the spectrum we have full democracies, which only account for 6.4% of the population. Norway tops this list, followed by New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland.

Regime TypeNo. of CountriesShare of countriesShare of World Population
Full democracies2112.6%6.4%
Flawed democracies5331.7%39.3%
Hybrid Regimes3420.4%17.2%
Authoritarian regimes5935.3%37.1%

Let’s explore the characteristics of each of the four types of regime according to the EIU:

Full democracies are nations where:

  • Civil liberties and fundamental political freedoms are respected
  • Valid systems of governmental checks and balances exist
  • There are limited problems in democratic functioning
  • Media is diverse and independent

Flawed democracies are nations where:

  • Elections are fair and free
  • Basic liberties are honored but may have issues
  • There are issues in the functioning of governance

Hybrid regimes are nations where:

  • Electoral fraud or irregularities occur regularly
  • Pressure is applied to political opposition
  • Corruption is widespread and rule of law tends to be weak
  • Media is pressured and harassed
  • There are issues in the functioning of governance

Authoritarian regimes are nations where:

  • Political pluralism is nonexistent or limited
  • The population is ruled by absolute monarchies or dictatorships
  • Infringements and abuses of civil liberties are common
  • Elections are not fair or free (if they occur at all)
  • Media is state-owned or controlled directly or indirectly by the ruling regime
  • The judiciary system is not independent
  • Criticism of the government is censored

Global Democracy Index by Region

As mentioned earlier, in 2021, the global democracy score declined from 5.37 to 5.28. This was driven by a decline in the average regional score, but every region has a different reality. Let’s take a look at the democratic state of each region in the world.

Americas

North America (Canada and U.S.) is the top-ranked region in the Democracy Index with an average score of 8.36, but this dropped significantly from 8.58 in 2020.

Both countries have dropped their positions in the global ranking, however, Canada still maintains the status as a full democracy.

map showing democracy index measuring political regimes in north and south america

The U.S. is still classified by EIU as a flawed democracy, and has been since 2016. The report points to extreme polarization and “gerrymandering” as key issues facing the country. On the bright side, political participation in the U.S. is still very robust compared with the rest of the world.

Latin America and the Caribbean experienced the largest decline in regional scores in the world. This region dropped from 6.09 in 2020 to 5.83 in 2021. This decline shows the general discontent of the population about how their governments have handled the pandemic.

In this region, the only country that falls under a full democracy is Costa Rica. On the other side of the spectrum, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba fall under the authoritarian regime classification.

Europe

In 2021, Western Europe is the region with the most full democracies in the world.

In fact, four out of the top five full democracies are in this region: Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland. A notable downgrade in this region happened in Spain; the country is now considered a flawed democracy.

map showing democracy index measuring political regimes in europe

Eastern Europe paints a different picture, where there is not a single full democracy. Three countries (Moldova, Montenegro, and North Macedonia) were upgraded from being considered hybrid regimes to flawed democracies.

Ukraine’s score declined to 5.57, becoming a hybrid region. Russia’s score also declined to 3.24 keeping the authoritarian regime status. It’s important to note that this report by the EIU was published before the invasion of Ukraine began, and the conflict will almost certainly impact scores in next year’s report.

Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa has the most countries at the bottom of the Democracy Index rankings.

The fact is that 23 countries are considered “authoritarian regimes”. Meanwhile, there are 14 countries that are hybrid regimes, six countries under flawed democracy, and only one country, Mauritius, is considered a full democracy.

map showing democracy index measuring political regimes in africa

In North Africa, four countries are considered authoritarian regimes: Sudan, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. Only Morocco and Tunisia fall into the hybrid regime classification.

Middle East and Central Asia

This region concentrates a substantial number of countries classified as authoritarian regimes. In fact, the region’s overall democracy score is now lower than what it was before the start of the Arab Spring in 2010.

map showing democracy index measuring political regimes in the middle east

There are no countries falling under the category of full democracy in this region. Only Israel (7.97) and Cyprus (7.43) are considered flawed democracies. Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and Pakistan fall under the category of hybrid regimes, and the rest of the countries in the region are considered authoritarian regimes.

East Asia and Oceania

This is broad region is full of contrasts. Aside from Western Europe, East Asia and Oceania contains the most full democracies: New Zealand, Taiwan, Australia, South Korea, and Japan. There are also a high number of countries that fall under the category of flawed democracies.

map showing democracy index measuring political regimes in east asia and oceania

It’s worth noting that some of the most contentious geopolitical relationships are between neighbors with big differences in their scores: China and Taiwan, or North and South Korea are examples of this juxtaposition.

Decline in Global Democracy Levels

Two years after the world got hit by the pandemic, we can see that global democracy is in a downward trend.

Every region’s global score experienced a drop, with the exception of Western Europe, which remained flat. Out of the 167 countries, 74 (44%) experienced a decline in their democracy score.

As pandemic restrictions continue to be lifted, will democracy make a comeback in 2022?

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