The world map we are most familiar with and use the most, the Mercator Projection, inaccurately depicts several countries in the world. For example, Greenland is shown to be the same size as Africa on the map; however, Africa is actually 14 times larger than Greenland.
Cartographer Gerardus Mercator created his revolutionary map in 1569 based on a cylindrical projection. The map was very suitable for nautical navigation since every line on the sphere was on a constant course. The way the map is designed is so that objects near the equator appear in relative scale to one another, but the objects closer to the poles appear larger than they are. This is why Greenland, Canada, and Russia, for example, appear much larger than they are in real life. Mercator’s map also significantly increases the size of Europe and North America.
Because most of us are not using paper maps to navigate the seas, critics of Mercator’s map argue that his style of the map gives users a warped perception of how large countries and continents are in real life. Mercator’s map is more useful for nautical navigation purposes rather than for educational purposes.
Mercator’s map became the widely chosen map to teach geography in classrooms during the 1980s. Up until 2018, it was Google’s map choice as well, whose map is used by about 150 million people per month. In recent years, information has been released regarding the inaccuracies of Mercator’s depiction of the countries.
Neil Kaye, a climate data scientist at the United Kingdom’s national weather service, the Met Office, drove these points home by creating an animation to depict the true size of each country in comparison to the Mercator projections.
As seen in the animation, land masses towards the Poles, such as Greenland, Canada, the United States, and Russia start to shrink. Europe and parts of Asia do the same. However, South America and Africa stay relatively the same. This is except for the southern parts of South America, like Chile and Argentina, since these countries are located closer to the South Pole.
Some interesting finds through this animation are:
- Chile is twice the size of Norway
- Iceland fits into Madagascar about five and a half times
- Thailand is twice the size of the United Kingdom
The world’s sixth-largest country by land area, Australia, stays relatively the same throughout the animation as well, unlike the world’s other largest countries: Russia, Canada, China, and the United States. This is despite Australia being relatively close to the South Pole.
Kaye also has an illustration showing the true size of the countries overlaid with Mercator’s projections of each of them. As seen in this map, Mercator had Antarctica taking up almost as much land mass as the rest of the continents. Additionally, Canada and Russia appear to occupy about 25% of the Earth’s surface but only take up about 5% in reality.
If you want to see the actual size of the world’s countries, this animated map lets you search, drag, and drop countries to see their true size and compare them to each other.