The True Size of Africa and South America: What the World Really Looks Like
Mercator World Map, 1569
Early cartographers such as Gerardus Mercator (see right) had to rely on mathematics and a little imagination to come up with an approximation of how the surface of the world looks. Their efforts may have sufficed for the purposes of naval navigation at a time when the world was rapidly shrinking as European explorers set out to discover and claim whole continents, but in terms of visual accuracy regarding the surface of the planet, they were often way off. Unfortunately, this legacy of navigationally useful but visually inaccurate maps remains with us today.
The natural assumption is that modern satellite imagery has finally gained us a conclusive image of the world more accurate and faithful than ever before. However, despite the implicit visual fidelity of satellite images, the vast majority of maps currently used to represent the surface of the earth are woefully distorted.
The Mercator Projection
The Mercator projection was devised by Gerard Mercator in 1569. It is very well-suited for navigation but it is very ill-suited for the purposes of geography due to the wildly distorted proportions of North and South. On a globe, the lines of latitude meet up at the poles and disappear, but on this map, the lines of latitude open up to form a square, increasing the size of land mass the closer one looks toward the poles. Although the modern Mercator projection fine-tuned with satellite imagery is more accurate than the 1569 original, it is still subject to the same distortion. Below is an example of a modern Mercator projection map, which is otherwise known as a cylindrical map projection:
Cylindrical Map Projection
The True Measure of Things
You should not be surprised if the above map looks very familiar to you. It has long been the standard world map taught in schools and printed in atlases. In fact, I have a Rand McNally map that looks very much like this covering the majority of my office desk right now. It is also similar to the projection used by Google maps.
This is where things get interesting. As you can see, Greenland appears to be about the same size as Africa. But wait, what are the seven continents again? They are North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. Why is Greenland not considered a continent when it is larger than most of those listed? In fact, Greenland is 14 times smaller than Africa and 9 times smaller than South America. It is approximately the same size as the African nation of Algeria in northern Africa.
On the Mercator projection, Antarctica seems to dwarf the Americas and Greenland combined, however, it is actually comparable in size to Australia. It is with Antarctica that you see just how distorted this projection becomes at the poles.
The Gall-Peters Projection
The Gall-Peters Projection is attributed both to James Gall and Arno Peters. Much more so than the Mercator projection above, the Gall-Peters projection below offers an accurate visual representation of the relative size of the continents. Gall first published this projection in the Scottish Geographical Magazine in 1855 to an underwhelming reception and it quickly faded into obscurity. Over a century later, in 1967, Arno Peters developed the same map and championed it as a harbinger of equality as it gave the predominantly underprivileged "southern continents" their due representation in terms of size. Although authorship of this projection is a source of great controversy, the current trend is to attribute it to both Gall and Peters. Below is an example of a modern Gall-Peters projection, which is a cylindrical equal-area projection:
Cylindrical Equal-Area Projection
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As you can see in the above map, Africa could almost rival the entire Eurasian continent in size and South America is not as much smaller than North America as the Mercator projection would lead you to believe.
The shape at the poles is still distorted, as we clearly see with Antarctica, but at least now it is its approximate size.
I recommend you scroll back and forth between these two projections to improve your understanding of just how distorted the much more commonly printed Mercator projection actually is. The Gall-Peters projection may look strange, but it is much more accurate in terms of land mass.
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What this could mean in terms of civil rights
I would like to take a moment now to go into more detail about an issue I have briefly touched on above. Arno Peters pushed the cylindrical equal-area projection because he was concerned about the possible underlying consequences of a visual representation of South America and Africa which makes these continents appear to be much smaller than they actually are. He argued that we automatically associate size with importance and even privilege. It just so happens that South America and Africa are home to a high quantity of the most underprivileged developing nations in the world.
Jane Elliot, the infamous proponent of the blue eyes brown eyes experiment, appeared on a 1992 episode of Oprah insisting that the Mercator projection is just one of many aspects of the education system in America that promotes and perpetuates racism, calling the map "a flat out lie".
While the more traditional Mercator projection is useful as a navigational tool, it is very misleading as a representation of the world for the purpose of studying geography. A degree of distortion is to be expected when a globe is laid down as a square map, but in light of the solution presented to us by the Gall-Peters projection, it is inappropriate to continue championing the wildly distorted Mercator projection as a geographical standard.
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