How many times have we stopped before a map to stare at the most hidden corners, or to verify how far we were in our last trip? It is easy to forget it, but when you imagine a world map, when you think of the countries that arise in a trivial conversation, we all have the same imprint in our head: the Mercator projection.
Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), was a 16th century cartographer who developed one of the most dominant cartographic projections in the world, although we should rather point out: in the European world.
His projection was crucial during the 18th century in nautical charts known as portulanos, because it allowed to trace courses in a straight line, obviating the sphericity of the terrestrial curvature.
At the height of the Age of Discovery, and with cartography as a definitive tool of power and control at the time, the value of securing maritime trade routes was essential. Perhaps for this reason no one stopped to think about the terrible geometric distortion that this visualization of the world produces as we move away from the Equator.
DIFFERENCES IN THE TERRITORIAL AREA
Today, the use of the Mercator projection is not justified except by specific interests. Being a cylindrical projection, the deformation experienced by the areas closest to the poles is such that Greenland (2,166,086 km²) is similar in extent to Africa (30,221,535 km²), when the actual data show that comparing both territories is simply crazy.
- Comparison between Greenland (pink) and Africa. Source: thetruesize.com
This distortion is made clear by comparing any northern territory with some equatorial. For example, one of the seemingly imperceptible cases that led me to realise that the projections on the maps can change reality was when I observed Iceland, a country that on the surface seems comparable to the Iberian Peninsula. But according to the data, Iceland has 103,000 km², practically the same as Castilla y León (94,223 km²) and Asturias (10,603 km²) together.
- Comparison between Iceland (red) and part of Spain. Source: thetruesize.com
The same is true of the United Kingdom (243,610 km²) and Spain (505,370 km²), which could hold twice as much British lands within its territorial boundaries.
- Comparison between United Kingdom (purple) and Spain. Source: thetruesize.com
WHY MERCATOR IS THE MOST EXTENDED PROJECTION?
It is clear that the Mercator projection was developed in Europe. If we see a world map represented by this projection and draw the line of the equator, the first thing we can say is that the northern hemisphere is much more continental (where the most of the land are) than the southern hemisphere, and it is totally true.
4. World map with the Mercator projection. In red, the Equator’s line. Source: ayayay.tv
What is not so true, is the visual impact it offers and leads us to think unconsciously that the world exists almost completely in the northern hemisphere, leaving the south “uninhabited”, with territories close to Ecuador and the Tropic of Capricorn, so they have not benefited from the grotesque deformation of the northern and southern lands.
This is a subject of discussion in many areas, in which there is debate about the intentionality of favoring a Eurocentric and dominant point of view on the part of the nations of the northern hemisphere. Personally, I believe that if the Mercator projection has remained valid until today, this theory makes sense.
But, on the other hand, the world map that is usually shown to support this cause lacks the Antarctic continent, and I wanted to include it in order to show that the distortion of proportions happens in both north and south directions, beyond the ideologies that may lie behind the use of this projection, although it is true that the northern hemisphere is favored by its continentality.
After all, it is not Mercator’s fault.
*in thetruesize.com you can compare the size of all countries in the world.