Why All World Maps Are Wrong

What The World Really Looks Like

Mercator Projection

We never really think of how important maps are in our everyday life. They help us get from Point A to Point B in the fastest way possible; but maps aren't and have never been 100% accurate. Now you may be saying, how is that possible?

This shows the process of how projection works (courtesy: vox.com)

Well, the surface of a sphere can not be represented on a flat surface without distortion. This was mathematically proven by Carl Friedrich Gauss in 1827, and with Earth being a sphere that made it hard for mathematicians, scientists, and cartographers to come up with a paper map. They would go on to use a process called projection. For example, you could put a cylinder shape around the sphere of the globe and then project those lines on to the cylinder (see picture above). These map makers also realized that you can project that sphere on many different shapes which is why you can see these many crazy looking maps on the internet. Most likely you were taught about the Mercator projection in school, which is also used by Google Maps. It is popular because of its ability to preserve the shape of countries. It was originally used for navigation, especially for the sea. It allowed voyagers to draw a straight line from one place to another for captains to easily follow. It isn’t the fastest route, but it was easy, and wasn’t complicated for people to follow. The Mercator does have some problems though, firstly being its representation of size.

This shows the way the Mercator Projection distorts the size of a country as it gets closer to the poles but maintains general shape. (courtesy: learngis.org)

For example, on the Mercator the size of Greenland and the size of Africa are very similar. On a globe, you can see the true size of Greenland is way smaller than Africa. The Mercator represents shape well, but as you get closer to the poles you can see an increase in size.

Satellites > Maps

A map that more accurately displays land area is the Gall-Peters Projection. For example, if you look at Greenland and Africa again, the size comparison looks much more accurate than the Mercator. Although the big problem with the Gall-Peters Projection is it’s distortion of country shapes. Some look like nothing of its true shape.

As you can see the Gall-Peters Projection distorts country shape while maintaining country size (courtesy: wikipedia.com)

A breakthrough in the late 1960’s would go on to change the way we navigated the land, sky, and water. This was the introduction of space satellites into our planet's orbit. Satellites are able to send location and navigation data to receivers on the ground. With now such advanced technology, satellites took away the need of paper maps as a way to navigate the Earth. Planes and ships now have machines telling them the exact course they need to follow to get to the destination as fast as possible. With these satellites taking over the job of navigation, people began to steer clear of paper maps as they were seen as less accurate and less trustworthy.

We currently have around 20,000 satellites orbiting our planet (courtesy: popsci.com)

Map projections are now more about the design, presentation, and look of the map. Although the Mercator Projection still has a purpose as Google Maps uses it, the reason being because the Mercator shows the almost true shape of road and street angles. There will still be distortion but it is very, very minimal when you are looking close up on the map. On a world map scale cartographers now rarely use the Mercator projection. In 1998 the National Geographic Society made up the Winkel- Tripel Projection because it balances size and shape of countries very well. In the end, there are endless possibilities of map projections and there is no true right answer. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of different map projections for different tasks, but the only way to see true shape, distance, direction, and land area is to look at a globe.

If you’re interested in seeing how the Mercator projection works, head over to https://thetruesize.com/ which is an interactive tool that allows you to see the distortion of countries shapes and sizes as you move them around the map.