Accurate Land Size​ Maps

Studying the Mercator map, the one on display in most U.S. classrooms, one of my students might exclaim, “Wow! Greenland is huge.” Or, “India is so small. Must be crowded.” Their predictable comments met with my well-rehearsed explanation that maps are two-dimensional while the Earth is three-dimensional. I’d  have them peel an orange that is close to the shape of our Earth, then ask them to flatten it and discuss what happened and the implication for our world map.

Below is the map that you’ve grown up with, right?

Mercator Projection Map

Take a close look at the map. North America (Mexico, U.S., and Canada) looks larger than Africa, and Scandinavia looks larger than India (below China). Greenland is huge, big enough to rival Africa.

All our maps, even Google maps, are wrong. Flynn Mercator, a European cartographer, created his map with Europe at the center, with its size generously inflated. Sixteenth century Europe was on the rise with Spanish explorers opening trade across the Pacific Ocean, linking the Americas with Asia. It’s easy to understand why Flynn saw Europe as the center of the world. I doubt that political correctness was much on European’s minds as they rushed around to conquer the wealth of the world. Fact checking came much later.

Boston Public Schools has decided to replace the Mercator maps in their classrooms with Peters projection maps that more accurately portray the sizes of the Earth’s continents. The Peters projection map distorts shapes, but visually, the scale, position, and proportion of the areas on the Earth are correct.

Peter Projection Map

Of all the land distortions on Mercator’s map, the elephant in the room is Africa. On the map, Africa looks smaller than North America, where in fact, it is three times larger. If you use Africa (white outline on map) as the base for a world puzzle and all pieces are correct to size, you can fit in the USA, India, Europe, and China, and still have space for Liberia and have room to squeeze Japan in as well. Wouldn’t my African-American students have found that empowering?

Africa map

Maps are made from different perspectives. Why is north always up? Up makes it more important somehow. North is up to the heavens and south is “below.” Let’s switch this around, have south reach up to the sky—sort of.  Europe and the U.S. don’t look as important.

South on Top

Our social and political biases come through our work, maps and writings. What I would tell my students today is that our world and lives are more beautiful than any one person’s perspective. I would tell them to “go and find your own beautiful life for yourself.”

Compare landmasses.

Watch the West Wing as it learns the true size of the Earth. Humor.

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