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Objects That Matter: Cartocontroversy

Imagine peeling an orange, then trying to lay the peel flat. Map-making is the art of manipulating the orange peel until it yields.

Cartographers have an impossible task: They must translate a three-dimensional sphere into a two-dimensional plane. Maps can show us correct area, correct distance, or correct shape, but—unlike globes—never all three at once. Any visual projection distorts the shape and size of Earth's features. These distortions change how we see the size of different parts of the world and also their global significance, historically charting a portrait of Earth that is, quite literally, Eurocentric.

In 1569, German-Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator designed a map to improve existing navigation charts, which previously failed to capture Earth's curvature. Mercator's map expanded degrees of latitude near the poles, turning latitude and longitude lines into a grid, which allowed sailors to plot a course more easily.

The Mercator projection, still used everywhere from textbooks to Google Maps, is how most of humanity visualizes the position and size of Earth's continents. But its design is deeply flawed: Mercator's map exaggerates the size of landmasses nearer the poles, including wealthy North America and Europe, while shrinking equatorial regions, such as central Africa, which tend to be less developed. Greenland looks roughly the size of Africa, but Africa is, in fact, 14 times larger. And the map's arbitrary topside placement of the Global North has been accepted as Earth's "correct" orientation.

Fortunately, alternative cartographic techniques render our planet in both more accurate and more elegant terms. The Mollweide projection, for example, abandons the notion of fitting Earth onto a neat rectangle, instead bending continents to represent their shapes and sizes more faithfully, while the Authagraph projection gives up the latitude and longitude grid for almost perfectly proportioned landmasses and oceans. Both maps give us more meaningful information about Earth's geography. It's harder to dismiss global warming when polar sea ice is shown true to scale.

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Pacific Standard.