Most of you will have come across a 2D map of the world that correctly displays all countries fitting perfectly to each other. But did you ever realize that this map is not showing you the true size of these countries? This results in a misconception on the world for many people. The map you know is based on the Mercator projection. The idea was invented in 1569 so that ships can sail in a constant compass direction for long stretches without having to plot twisted routes. Most modern maps of the world are based on this principle. The linear scale is constant in every direction on this map but sizes are inflated especially near the poles.
As a result of this, many peoples view of the world is heavily informed by the Mercator projection. This results in a wrong conception of size. The vast majority of us aren’t using paper maps to chart our course across the ocean anymore. So critics of the Mercator projection argue that the continued use of this style of the map gives users a warped sense of the true size of countries – particularly in the case of the African continent. For example, Greenland appears the same size as Africa, when in reality Africa is 14 times larger. Antarctica appears to be extremely large, although it is actually the third smallest continent by area. Antarctica is just smaller than Russia, or the size of the United States and India combined.
This misconception of the world really comes into play when moving away from the equator. Visually speaking, Canada and Russia appear to take up approximately 25% of the Earth’s surface, when in reality they occupy a mere 5%.
The map of the world shown up top was made by a climate scientist named Neil Kaye from the UK and it shows the map we all know overlayed with the true size of all the countries. It is really world-changing to realize how wrong our view of the world really is.
People not only perceive the size of the world the wrong way, but they also have a wrong sense of distance.
Another misconception many people have from only looking at this 2D map all their lives is, that the United States of America and their long time rival appear to be separated by half the world when in fact at their closest point the mainland of Russia and the US have only 88.5 km of ocean between them. This is called the Bering Strait. But there are two little islands in the middle of this Straight one of which is owned by the US and the other by Russia. The stretch of water between these two islands is only about 2.5 miles wide and actually freezes over during the winter so you could technically walk from the US to Russia on this seasonal sea ice.
In the picture here you can see these two islands. On the left-hand side, you can see Cape Dezhnev Russia and on the right-hand side, you can see Cape Prince of Wales Alaska USA. The two islands in the middle are Big Diomede Russia and Diomede USA.
But why use the Mercator projection in the first place?
The Mercator projection has two features that made it very useful for see navigation. First, the meridian (line of longitude) is a vertical line. And the latitude is a horizontal line. That is why it’s used for navigation charts because any straight line on a Mercator projection map is a line of constant true bearing that enables a navigator to plot a straight-line course. Making it much easier to stay on course, especially when there where no satellites help navigate the ocean. Nowadays ships use technology and satellite connection to navigate and this type of map has no real use anymore. Planes use a totally different map altogether. And all other types of transportation have no need for a world map because on the scale we drive this effect does not come into play. But because this map was used for so long and has found its way into schools and kinds of services we are so used to it that we don’t even realize our error. There are many other ways to project a globe onto a 2D surface. But that’s always connected with problems.
I bet most of you have at some point or another tried to flatten the peel of an orange to a table. I have. What you will notice is, that gabs form, and near the two poles these gabs will be widest. That is because the area of the orange and the area of a rectangle is different in form and size. Some maps show the earth just like the peel of an orange flattened to the ground. The Goode´s Homolosine Equal-area Projection is an example of that. You can see that the North-South and the West-East lines are not straight anymore. So one can conclude that neither map is useless but some are better for comparing the size of individual countries. And others are better to Navigate the oceans and compare the shape of the different countries.
Seeing for yourself
Luckily we are living in a world where technology is available to most people. Google maps for example uses the Mercator projection as a base setting but there is a feature where you can change to globe mode which lets you see the world like it really is. I would absolutely recommend you to check it out. You can even zoom all the way out to space and take a look at all the other planets and moons in our solar system. But just comparing your country to some of the others you always thought where bigger or smaller than yours will blow your mind.
In these two pictures you can see a view of Europe, Greenland and parts of the African continent. The first one shoes the 2D version of google maps and the second one the globe version. You can easely see the size difference of greenland in the two pictures. If you want to try this out for yourself, click here. To change the view on PC from 2D to globe moder just click the little globe icon in the bottom right cornor. If you zoom out all the way first and then change the mode the map will change with a cool animation.
To see the globe on mobile you need to open google maps in your internet browser. As far as I know, the app does not have this option enabled.
Let me know which country you thought was much bigger or much smaller than you always thought. And which missconception you had before reading this article.
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Image Credit: fig 1: Neil Kaye fig 2: NASA fig 3: AMSI Calculate fig 4,5: Google maps