Ah, the Mercator Projection map. It was first introduced by the Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569. It became the standard map projection for navigation because it was unique in representing north as up and south as down everywhere. As a side effect, the Mercator map inflates the size of objects away from the equator. This inflation is very small near the equator but accelerates with increasing latitude to become infinite at the North and South poles. For example:
- Antarctica appears to be extremely large. In reality, it is the second smallest continent, being just smaller than Russia.
- Ellesmere Island on the north of Canada’s Arctic archipelago looks about the same size as Australia, although Australia is over 39 times as large.
- Greenland appears the same size as Africa when in reality Africa’s area is 14 times as large. Greenland’s real area is comparable to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s alone.
- Alaska appears to be the same size as Australia, although Australia is actually 4½ times as large. Alaska also takes as much area on the map as Brazil, whereas Brazil’s area is nearly 5 times that of Alaska.
- Madagascar and Great Britain look about the same size, while Madagascar is actually more than twice as large as the largest of the British Isles. Sweden appears much larger than Madagascar. In reality, they are similarly sized.
- Russia appears bigger than the whole of Africa, or North America (without the latter’s islands). It also appears twice the size of China and the contiguous United States combined, when, in reality, the sum is comparable in size.
Many of us grew up studying and memorizing this highly distorted world map (shown above, the original 1569 version). Well, that map’s days are numbered! A new highly accurate, double-sided map crafted by a cosmologist, a mathematician, and an astrophysicist aims to change that. They say it’s the least distorted world map ever made.
In a very simplified nutshell, you take a 3-D globe and deflate it. On each side of the flat disk, you have one of the two hemispheres. Antarctica and Australia are now more accurately represented, and distances across oceans or across poles are accurate and easy to measure. You can print it out and try it for yourself!
Animation at the top by J. Richard Gott, Robert Vanderbei, and David Goldberg, the creators of the new disk map.
By Hannah F
Senior Art Director