Everything You Thought About Geography Was Wrong – Thanks To This Map

Our perception of how the world looks is very two-dimensional.

That wouldn’t be so bad if the world was, indeed, flat.

But it’s not. It’s a globe, so the two-dimensional maps that we grew up with just aren’t quite right.

Neither were the maps in your school, or the maps in an atlas or even Google Maps.

Most of them are based on the “Mercator Projection” a way of spreading out a globe to appear on a flat surface.

This was great in the 16th Century (when Gerardus Mercator developed his map) because sailors could easily find the straightened out latitudes and longitudes.

But there’s a problem … Mapmakers call it the “Greenland problem.”

See, Greenland is not nearly as big as you think it is. Looking at a Mercator projection map, the island is bigger than the entire continent of South America. But it’s not. It’s actually one eighth the size of South America.

Alaska has the same problem. Yes, it’s a big state, but with the projection spreading out distances to an incredible degree along the poles, it makes Alaska look absolutely massive. It looks many times larger than Mexico, but it’s not.

Newsy.com explains why it works this way:

This happens because mapmakers must rely on mathematical formulas to project the surface of the Earth, a sphere, onto the surface on a map, a plane. Calculus and complex algebra eventually improved map projections, yet the Mercator stubbornly remained a popular general world map.

Although it was a great navigation map, it was also used as a geographic map in classrooms and in atlases. The distorted view of Earth’s landmasses in a Mercator’s projection became how people saw the world.

Of course, it was wrong and geography teachers and mapmakers weren’t happy. Newspapers called for it to be banned in the 1940s. That same decade, Fortune magazine dedicated several issues to “orthographic maps,” arguing that the Mercator map is a mental hazard in a war that is plotted on great circles across the land and sea and through the air.”

Perhaps nowhere was the rejection of Mercator’s projection more apparent than with Richard Edes Harrison’s illustrations. The architect-turned-illustrator for Fortune magazine created maps truly fit for a world dominated by flight, offering revolutionary views of the planet as World War II raged. In Harrison’s maps, it was clear just how obvious United States isolation was — or how many neighbors Europe had.

During World War II, maps suddenly had a different use: Persuasion. They were used to show how threatening Germany was or how important it was to fight communism.

There was plenty of back and forth over which map to use.

Eventually, the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping stepped in and had a resolution. The organization and six other cartographic groups urged map publishers, the media and government agencies to stop using rectangular depictions like the Gall-Peters and Mercator for general purposes. The answer to Mercator’s problem was not a new rectangular map, the resolution said, but instead non-rectangular projections like the Mollweide or Eckert IV.

The media picked up the resolution, including a column in The Washington Post. It even made it to the front page of The Wall Street Journal.

The Gall-Peters hasn’t gone away. Boston Public Schools recently said it will now use the Gall-Peters in classrooms to “de-colonize” the curriculum. But it’s not like the Gall-Peters is replacing all maps. You can find different types everywhere. The U.N. logo has an azimuthal projection, and a Goode homolosine is in the background of CBS’ evening news broadcast. But if you’re really worried about how to look at the world, you should probably just buy a globe.



Robert Gehl

About Robert Gehl

Robert Gehl is a college professor in Phoenix, Arizona. He has over 15 years journalism experience, including two Associated Press awards. He lives in Glendale with his wife and two young children.

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