A distorted view of the world

world map photoThink maps show the relative size of the world’s countries?  Most don’t!

The world is a slightly flattened sphere and the land masses that we live on are all curved around it.  Flattening out the surface of a round Earth onto a flat surface creates hard choices for cartographers (map makers).   Essentially, map making is a trade-off between getting the relative size of each country correct, showing the relative position of land masses accurately, and making the angles measured on the map easy to measure to aid navigation.

Flemish mathematician and cartographer Mercator created the most common map we know today.  The Mercator Projection distorts everything in the world, shrinking the apparent size of countries as they approach the Equator in order to allow the angle between straight lines drawn on the map to be a true angle angle in the real world, making naval navigation much easier at the expense of the map’s apparent accuracy.  Have a look at how the size of different countries compare on a Mercator projection map.   It will not be the result you expect!

This fun tool allows you to drag countries around a Mercator projection and see how they grow or shrink when positioned different distances from the Equator.

These alternative world map projections make countries appear their real size but would be much more complicated to use for navigation because a straight line between two points would actually be a curve on most of the maps.

Photo by surrealpenguin

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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