Day in and day out, most people don’t invest a lot of time thinking about how outdated cartography really is. When you hear that the map on which all our perceptions of the world are based on a technique finalized in 1569, it might not sound too concerning. After all, how hard can it be to translate real world measurements to a piece of paper. All you really need is time, patience, and a big enough ruler, right? As it happens, the science and art of cartography has seen some monumental changes in the last 450 years — and the result is that everything you thought you knew about the world’s map is probably wrong. Here’s why.
1. The Map You Know
At the moment, the world’s most widely accepted means of cartography — or map-making — is a method established by Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator at the end of the fourteenth century. It was designed not for accuracy, but to help ship’s captains get around the world safely. So, it was useful when a sail was your best means of getting from point ‘A’ to point ‘B,’ but these days it’s a little bit outdated.
2. Flattening the Globe
People have known that Mercator’s globe is distorted for some time. In fact, in 1974, Dr. Arno Peters concocted the “equal-area map” which is designed to accurately scale the land. However, it took a Tokyo architect named Hajime Narukawa to actually build the map itself. Over the course of several years, Narukawa used math-type-stuff to “flatten” the Earth, creating the most accurate map the world has ever known. Here are the specific problems Narukawa’s map addresses.
3. Why Is the Narukawa Map Such a Big Deal?
Even if your life isn’t fundamentally changed by learning that Greenland is kind of a runty little island, Narukawa’s map still exposes a fundamental truth about the way knowledge is disseminated throughout the world. When Mercator was drafting his first “accurate” maps in the 1560s, he did so with a firm belief that Europe and its people were the center of the Universe. So, whether consciously or unconsciously, he created a map that put his people smack dab in the middle of the action. As a result, Mercator’s Map reflects a time in history, it doesn’t reflect the actual measurements of the world in which we live. It’s entirely possible that the Mercator projections have had an immeasurable impact on the way the world works, whether by making Americans feel like their place in the world is much larger than it actually is or by unconsciously shunting the majority of the world’s people off to the sides of the geographical table. These decisions have implications on how people think, whether you want to admit it or not. As you look through these geographical mistakes, just consider the political ramifications that may or may not have accompanied each of Mercator’s distortions.
4. Until Now, Africa Has Been Criminally Misrepresented
In the Mercator projection, Africa is pictured as much smaller than it actually is. In fact, you might be forgiven for thinking that North America is about as big as Africa. You’d be wrong. The United States, China, and India could fit snugly into Africa with room to spare. The Cradle of Life represents a much larger portion of the world’s land mass than most Americans are led to believe.
5. India Is Way Bigger Than You Thought
Ever looked at a map and wondered how more than a billion people (that’s three time the population of the United States) can fit into an area that — on a Mercator projection — looks like it’s about the size of Texas? Well, that’s because India is actually three times larger than the Scandinavian countries. It’s massive.
6. Greenland Is Much Smaller Than It Looks
Most people believe that Greenland is some massive stretch of frozen land stretching toward the Arctic Circle. That isn’t the case at all. Once more, let’s compare it to Africa. The Mercator numbers show Greenland as a huge nation comparable in size to Africa. In fact, Greenland is about one-tenth the size of Africa. It’s smaller than the Republic of Congo.
7. Alaska Is Tiny, Too
The United States likes to talk about how vast the wilderness of Alaska is. It’s the biggest state in the Union. It’s twice the size of Texas. It’s larger than most of the Midwest. But it’s not that big. In fact, Mexico is actually larger than Alaska in terms of land area.
8. The World As You Know It Is Upside-Down
Here’s another fun secret about Mercator and his map-making buds: they were kind of narcissistic. See, from an interstellar perspective, the landmass on Earth looks upside down when compared to Mercator projections. As a result, Africa, not Europe, is very much at the top-center of the accurate map.
9. Antarctica Isn’t That Big
Most Mercator-influenced maps spread Antarctica along the bottom of the page, making it look like a vast wintery landscape. In fact, Africa is more than twice the size of Antarctica. Even China is very nearly the size of the southernmost continent.