The Problem with Our Projection of the World

Growing up I’ve always had an interest in countries, maps, and even flags, so this week holds a particular familiarity. When I was younger I used to sit in my room looking at my world map, teaching myself about land masses, countries, and cities but never really thought about the ‘Mercator projection’ of the globe. In theory, it doesn’t make sense to map out a sphere on a flat surface, so why has it been this way on maps of the world ever since the Mercator map was developed in 1569 and then used to this day?

In Mark Monmonier’s book entitled ‘How to lie with maps’, he states the numerous reasons as to why a cartographer would manipulate a map. These reasons include territorial claims, national pride, border disputes, regional advantage, or even as a form of propaganda to appear superior to citizens and enemies. Maps are a strong example of power, with those who make the maps essentially dictating where places are. This was important during the time when the Mercator world map was developed, with colonies attempting to explore the globe in search of unclaimed land, or to broadcast land already owned to other colonies.  With Europe being the power centre of the world, it would be a reason why Europe is located in the centre of the map. In reality, there doesn’t need to be a centre of the map as even an ‘upside down’ map can show the same story.

We assume the Mercator projection is accurate, which is compounded by its prevalence in everyday life. Even Google Maps uses the same map, and therefore it becomes an everyday and distinctive way the globe is imagined.

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(Mercator’s original world map developed in 1569) – Source

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(The Mercator projection includes distortion of the countries nearest the north and south poles) – Source

The Mercator projection was developed by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569, with the aim of producing a map to assist explorers in traversing the globe. The problem with this is the distortion from laying a sphere flat. In effect, it stretches the north and south points of the map out wide, creating the illusion that countries at the north and south are actually larger than they are in the real world. This illusion is shown on the website thetruesize.com, which aims to demonstrate the problems with the Mercator projection in an interesting and easy manner.

As stated on the website, the Mercator projection exaggerates the size of countries nearest the north and south poles, while downplaying the sizes of countries nearest the equator.

One inaccuracy with the Mercator projection involves Greenland. Greenland appears the same size as Africa, whereas in reality Africa is nearly 14 and a half times bigger.

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(Greenland compared to Africa is shown with the Mercator projection)

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(Greenland’s true size compared to Africa)

Clearly the Mercator projection has its inaccuracies, but is there another way to portray land forms and countries which both makes sense and is completely accurate? I don’t think this will ever happen, and unless enough injustice is found, we will continue to use the Mercator projection through time.

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(A style of world map with greater accuracy then the Mercator projection, but not as easy to look at) – Source

 

Links:

  • Truesize website, where screenshots were taken from:

http://thetruesize.com/

http://thetruesize.com/#/aboutModal

  • Mark Monmonier, ‘How to lie with maps’, 1996

http://courses.washington.edu/war101/readings/Monmonier.pdf

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