- Our world maps lie to us: North America and Europe aren't really that big and Africa really is much bigger.
- It's all the fault of Mercator: even if the man himself wasn't necessarily Eurocentric, his projection is.
- This interactive map tool reveals countries' true sizes without having to resort to the Peters projection.
Is Texas really bigger than Poland? Does Russia stretch further east to west than Africa does north to south? And how big a chunk of Europe would the U.S. cover? If you’re losing sleep over questions like these, you’ll find relief at TheTrueSize.com, a web tool designed to provide answers about the relative sizes of countries (and U.S. states).
Created by James Talmage and Damon Maneice, the application was inspired by an episode of The West Wing, in which a delegation of the (fictional) Organisation of Cartographers for Social Equality (OCSE) asks the White House to get public schools to use world maps that use the Peters projection rather than the traditional Mercator projection.
Why? On a Mercator map, countries in further north (and south) are shown larger than they are relative to countries closer to the equator. In so doing, one of the OCSE scientists explains, “the Mercator projection has fostered European imperialist attitudes for centuries and created an ethnic bias against the Third World,” says one OCSE scientist.
However, her colleagues point out that this was not Mercator’s original intent: “(He) designed (the Mercator projection) as a navigational tool for European sailors (…) The map enlarges areas at the poles to create straight lines of constant bearing or geographic direction.”
While those straight lines make it easy for sailors to follow directions across oceans, world maps in the Mercator projection distort the relative size of the world’s land masses — and increasingly so closer to the poles.
- The classic example, also used in The West Wing scene, is Greenland: on a Mercator world map, it appears roughly the same size as Africa. In fact, the continent is 14 times larger than the island.
- Other examples: on a Mercator map, Europe seems larger than South America; in fact, South America is almost double the size of Europe.
- And, Alaska appears three times as large as Mexico, but Mexico is slightly larger than America’s northernmost state.
However, the Peters projection deviates substantially from what many people have come to expect a world map should look like. Or, as one of the presidential aides in The West Wing said, when presented with an example, “What the hell is that?”
This app allows size comparison while avoiding the cartographic Fremdkörper that the Peters projection still is. “We hope teachers will use it to show their students just how big the world actually is,” say Talmage and Macniece.
TheTrueSize.com is great fun: move equatorial countries north and see how getting closer to the pole distorts them, as if in a house of mirrors at the carnival. Plonk countries from different latitudes next to each other and see how they’re a lot more different in size than you thought. Or a lot less. See countries shrink as you drag them from their positions high up north (or deep down south) closer to the equator.
Greenland and Africa, Mercator style
Congo is bigger than Greenland
UK trumps Tanzania
Tanzania swallows the UK
Russia on top
Russia on its head
Trying Europe on for size
Inflated and deflated states of America
Ten largest countries
Germany in the Midwest
Strange Maps #953
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.