A fascinating interactive map shows how different countries really compare in size – a problem that has for centuries stumped cartographers trying to show the spherical Earth on a flat piece of paper.
thetruesize.com aims to demonstrate just how much the Mercator projection, the most common way cartographers transform the globe into a two-dimensional map, distorts the size of certain countries and, as a result, the way we think about the world.
“One of the most common criticisms of the Mercator map is that it exaggerates the size of countries nearer the poles (US, Russia, Europe), while downplaying the size of those near the equator (the African Continent),” write thetruesize.com creators James Talmage and Damon Maneice.
“On the Mercator projection Greenland appears to be roughly the same size as Africa. In reality, Greenland is 2 million square kilometers and Africa is 30 million square kilometers, nearly 14 and a half times larger.”
The tool allows users to search for a country and then move it around the map. Its size adjusts as it moves closer to, or further away from, the poles.
Map nerds will lose countless hours selecting countries to battle it out in the size stakes. These screenshots demonstrate the kind of fun you can have with Antarctica.
Other strangely gratifying activities include trying to fit as many countries as possible into the South American and African continents. As you can see in the first image above, I managed to fit nine countries into Africa. (Geography nerds will be able to guess from the outlines which countries they are.)
Cartographers have devised numerous ways of projecting the Earth onto a two-dimensional map. Every projection has its weaknesses and the distortions inherent in the various historical projections often betrayed, deliberately or otherwise, the bias of their creators. A map is, after all, a way of looking at the world.
The medieval maps of Europe, for example, incorporated religious ideas, depicting Jerusalem at the centre and orienting the whole map to the East (where the sun rises and the lost Garden of Eden was thought to lie).
By contrast, Arab maps by Muslim scholars such as Al-Idrisi advanced early Greek practices first developed by Ptolemy in his book Geography¸ written about 150 AD. Ptolemy’s maps were the first to use longitudinal and latitudinal lines.
The Mercator projection, developed in the 16th century by Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator, flattens the globe by straightening the meridians (the imaginary lines encircling the globe and passing through both poles) and parallels (which run perpendicular to the meridians).
This was great for navigation but not so useful for representing size and distance because the scale increases from the equator and becomes infinite at the poles.
This explains why Antarctica is so enormous and Africa so comparatively small in online maps such as Google and Bing, which use the Mercator projection. In fact, Africa (30 million square kilometers) is more than twice the size of Antarctica (14 million square kilometers).
The widespread use of the Mercator projection has been fiercely criticized as a sign of Euro-centric bias. In this projection, the northern European countries appear far larger and more dominant than the countries in the south. To rectify the problem, German historian Arno Peters developed the Galls-Peters projection, which distorts countries’ shape but accurately shows their size. However, it was never widely used.
Talmage and Maneice’s interactive map stands in this tradition.
“It was inspired by an episode of The West Wing and an infographic by Kai Krause entitled “The True Size of Africa”,” they write on thetruesize.com.
“We hope teachers will use it to show their students just how big the world actually is.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/eLqC3FNNOaI
* The nine countries are Mongolia (pink), Ukraine (red), the US (turquoise), Sweden (light blue), the UK (blue), India (yellow), Norway (purple), Finland (green) and China (orange).