When maps lie (Africa gets short-changed again)

Africa is as big as the United States, China, India, Japan and all of Europe combined — so why are our maps telling us otherwise?

World maps are liars. Because they don’t accurately represent the curvature of the Earth, they increasingly exaggerate the size of regions the further they are from the equator. This means tropical nations appear to be smaller than they really are, while the industrialised countries seem bigger.

The biggest liar of them all is the Mercator projection map, which has been around since 1569. While the Mercator projection is useful for navigation, it grossly misrepresents the size of different regions. And while it has been superseded by better projections, it is still in use in some surprising places — this is how it looks on the BBC World News page.

Does this create a false sense of the relative importance of rich and poor countries and regions? Probably. Africa in particular gets short-changed. Greenland appears to be more or less the same size, yet in reality Africa’s surface area is 14 times larger.

To correct such misrepresentation, Kai Krause has created this map and associated information to show that Africa’s total area is almost the same as that of the United States, China, India, Japan and all of Europe combined.

Krause has put this image in the public domain for anyone to use. It should be on newspaper pages and classrooms walls around the world.

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15 Responses to When maps lie (Africa gets short-changed again)

  1. Muchaneta Chimuka says:

    So we have to be careful in handling our planet especially in conserving the natural resources that God gave to us.
    Now in Zimbabwe temperatures are ever increasing that ever due to human negligence people are constantly cutting down tree and there is an increase in wild fires thereby affecting the ozone layer leading to rising in temperature.
    In the South Eastern Lowveld of Zimbabwe temperature are now recording at 45-40 degrees Celsius leading to the outbreak of disease such as malaria, heat stroke, skin diseases especially to the albinos etc.
    We have to be careful because every action that we take will hit us back in our own eye.
    Our planet is our future, our dearest life

  2. LAWRENCE SEATON KWALAR says:

    IT IS A SHAME WHAT SOME PEOPLE STILL DO IN THESE MODERN TIMES.
    I WONDER WHAT THEY GAIN FROM DISTORTING NATURE. THIS MISREPRESENTATION CERTAINLY HAS LED TO THE FAILURE IN CREATING SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS. OH MAN, WHAT ART THOU?
    SHAME ON YOU.

  3. Maxwell Awumah says:

    This confirms some of the injustices meted out to the African continent and its inhabitants. This is incredulous and another daylight robbery. No matter how the imperialists would want to situate Africa, it is the cradle of civilisation….are we going to short-change that also?
    The truth is like a cork, no matter compelling factors, it would keep afloat, the time of reckoning is here. S_H_A_M_E

  4. John says:

    Continent Area in Square Miles
    (Square Km) Percent of Total Land Area on Earth
    The graphic indicating that Africa is so large is not correct – here are the land masses – N America aone is 80% the size of Africa

    The World 57,308,738 Sq. Miles (148,429,000 Sq. Km) 100%

    Asia (plus the Middle East) 17,212,000 Sq. Miles (44,579,000 Sq. Km) 30.0%

    Africa 11,608,000 Sq. Miles (30,065,000 Sq. Km) 20.3%

    North America 9,365,000 Sq. Miles (24,256,000 Sq. Km) 16.3%

    South America 6,880,000 Sq. Miles (17,819,000 Sq. Km) 12.0%

    Antarctica 5,100,000 Sq. Miles (13,209,000 Sq. Km) 8.9%

    Europe 3,837,000 Sq. Miles (9,938,000 Sq. Km) 6.7%

    Australia (plus Oceania) 2,968,000 Sq. Miles (7,687,000 Sq. Km) 5.2%

    —– Original Message —–

    • mikeshanahan says:

      Thanks for your comment John, but the graphic does not include all of North America. It includes lower 48 states of the United States, but excludes Hawaii, Alaska (the largest US state) and Canada (which itself is larger in area that all 50 US states combined) . You can see the total areas of the countries shown in the graphic here – http://static02.mediaite.com/geekosystem/uploads/2010/10/true-size-of-africa.jpg

    • Royaloreca says:

      the Graphic is indicating that Africa has almost the same land area as USA, China, India, Japan and all of Europe combined. North America is the United States and Canada combined. and the graphic is comparing Africa to some of the biggest industrialized countries to show its size that has been badly represented in some maps, not continents. although your estimates are correct, that is not the comparison being performed in the article.

  5. John says:

    Great highlight of this age old problem. There is a really good book on this topic called.. , How to Lie with Maps. http://www.amazon.com/How-Lie-Maps-Mark-Monmonier/dp/0226534219

    Projections while usually made to assist in making maps easy to read and present are often conveniently made to over-represent a political or national worldview. I love Kai Krause’s map!
    -John
    databasin.org

  6. Clemence Tashaya says:

    Thanks Mike

    Mike that information is so valuable to such an extent that I really believed in it. But as other comments are saying, other bigger states like Hawaii are missing from the “new” map. Otherwise, this needs a two day conference to explain the story behind the map. I have seen above my other lovely sister from Zimbabwe has enjoyed the map and hope more of such informative information will continue to flourish to us as journalists and readers.

    Thank once again Mike and other members

    Clemence Tashaya
    Award winning journalist in Environmentals Affairs in the SADC region,Namibia.

  7. Fr Cyprian (Humphrey) says:

    “This means tropical nations appear to be smaller than they really are, while the industrialised countries seem bigger.”

    Seriously?

    Since when did industrialisation become equated with distance from the equator? This is about as logical as asking why all the industrialised nations (until relatively recently) spoke English, or were populated by white people. As blatantly racist as the assumptions are behind those two examples, the one I quoted from your article, although probably not racistly motivated, is as equally off base. By that logic, Antarctica should have a booming economy.

    The mercator projection map’s inherent flaws are based in mathematics and physics, not economics. No matter how passionate you are about the downtrodden (which I applaud, and am right there with you, by the way!) doesn’t mean that the laws of physics don’t apply. Creating a picture of a three dimensional object on a two dimensional plane will *always* create distortions. *Always*. And those distortions are not politically motivated – it’s just math.

    I don’t know about you, but this was covered in High School when I went.

    • mikeshanahan says:

      Thanks for commenting. I wasn’t implying a cause and effect…. just saying that a) tropical countries look smaller and that the temperate ones (which happen also to be industrialised) look larger.

      • Fr Cyprian (Humphrey) says:

        Fair enough. And perhaps I was a bit curt with my critique, but I come from a background where maps were used as tools for navigation, and there are mathmatical formulae used to counter the necessary distortions found in those maps. If you try to navigate a vessel across an ocean, and don’t calculate the curvature of the Earth correctly, you’ll find yourself quite a ways from where you were planning to go. I guess if you’re using a map to do not much more than give impressions about the countries depicted, there are other concerns, but as far as I know, the primary purpose of a map is as an aid to navigation.

        Other uses are possible of course, but are by definition secondary, and for those other uses, it’s possible that other schemes for projection may create clearer mental impressions. but that shouldn’t over-ride the fact that a map’s primary use is navigation. And projection schemes that are simpler to use for navigation, even if for no other reason than they’ve been in use for a long period of time, and navigators are proficient at correcting the distortions as they travel (eg. the Mercator projection map), they are therefore technically superior maps.

        I will concede that perhaps other types of maps may be useful in Social Studies classrooms and the like, but there, I personally think a Globe might be even better.

  8. exv says:

    that’s all very well, but what would actually be useful is not just the map of africa, but a redrawn map of the world in the mercator style showing actual sizes. then we can properly compare the real picture with the one being used.

    • Father Cyprian (Humphrey) says:

      Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Taking the image of a three dimensional object (ie. planet Earth) and representing it on a two dimensional plane (ie. a map) necessarily creates distortion, simply due to the removal of one of the dimensions. It’s math. There’s no way around it. Drawing a map of even a single country involves distortion.

      Therefore “(redrawing a) map of the world in the mercator style showing actual sizes” is, by technical definition, impossible. What you’re looking for is a globe.

  9. Miklos says:

    The lesson here is to look at the facts and not just an image to draw conclusions. Kind of like your car’s rear view mirror, where the objects are closer than they appear. Or invest in a $40 globe for your child and see it for yourself.

  10. Danny says:

    I can’t be the only person wondering which projection(s) Krause used to render these countries into a 2D model. Whichever is used there will be some distortion. Is Florida rendered relatively smaller than Maine? If so, to what political end? A hatred of oranges maybe?

    Yes, I’m being ridiculous, but to illustrate a point. Compromises are required to render a sphere onto a 2d surface. Mercator has worked well for navigation for centuries which accounts for it’s popularity. Not a desire to oppress the people of Africa through a choice of projection. I mean really.

    I wonder if the Africans are remotely concerned about this. The acid test would be to find out if any groundbreaking projections have been invented by Africans.

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