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Discrepancies in Continent Sizes in Mercator Maps

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Discrepancies in Continent Sizes in Mercator’s World Map
The Mercator World map was the first world map to make use of the Mercator projection, a method of map projection that is still common today. The projection creates maps that are suitable for navigation, but which distort the shapes and sizes of landmasses located further from the equator. Despite this, many map- makers continue to make use of the Mercator projection. This essay explores the nature of the Mercator map, and evaluates arguments for and against its continued use.
A study at the sizes of the world’s land masses should reflect the extent of distortion in maps making use of the Mercator projection. As an example, Africa, which is in reality about fourteen times greater than Greenland in size, occupies a roughly similar area as Greenland in Mercator maps1. On the other hand, Europe has been enlarged, making it look much larger than it really is.
Does this distortion stem from cultural bias, whether conscious or unconscious? Opponents of the Mercator projection, including proponents of the Peters map1, believe this to be the case. However, I do not share their opinion. The Mercator projection was never intended to be used to create scale maps of the world, and even its creator, Mercator himself, preferred the Sinusoidal map to show relative areas2. The primary purpose of the Mercator map was, and still is, for navigation, and it is incredibly well- suited for this purpose as the map allows for the drawing of straight lines on the map to represent lines of constant bearing on Earth3. The distortion of the continents is a byproduct of the methods used to create the effects necessary for the Mercator map to fulfill its function, and according to me, the belittlement of Africa is more of a coincidence than an intentional attempt to glorify Europe.
That being said, the use of Mercator projected maps outside of navigation remains indefensible. It makes regions near the Equator appear smaller than they really are, and thus it does not give a fair depiction of the world’s land masses. Fortunately, many modern Atlases, quite rightly, have rejected its use and replaced it with fairer depictions of the world. However, the map continues to see use in wall maps placed in classrooms as well as in textbooks and other publications.
Unfortunately, while many fairer depictions of the world exist, no single rectangular world map can claim to be the fairest map. In fact, the Cartography and Geographic Information Society rejected all rectangular world maps, claiming that all rectangular maps are distorted in some way or another and thus will mislead laymen4.This happens because the Earth is a sphere, and hence it is impossible to perfectly translate it onto a plane. As an example, the Gall- Peters map, which was proposed by its creator to be a fairer alternative to the Mercator map, showed a degree of distortion at low latitudes. The only perfect option would be to use maps which are non- rectangular, yet a shift to these would be mean the loss of advantageous characteristics of rectangular maps, such as their simplicity.
The flaw of the Mercator’s map is a necessary evil for the fulfillment of its purpose, and while in many cases it would be wise to replace it with more reliable maps of the Earth, the creation of a perfect map is impossible. Hence, distortion in maps, if they were to remain rectangular, has to be accepted.

Footnotes
1Peters map, retrieved 7 September 2014, par. 1 and 2
2Musings on Maps, retrieved 23 September 2014, par.5
3The Endeavour, retrieved 7 September 2014, par. 3
4 Robinson, 1960, p. 82
Bibliography
Peters map. The Greenland Problem. Retrieved on 7 September 2014 from http://www.petersmap.com/page3.html
Musings on Maps. A Well-Drawn Map: the Aura of the Projection. Retrieved on 23 September 2014 from https://dabrownstein.wordpress.com/category/mercator-projection/
The Endeavour. Mercator Projection. Retrieved on 7 September 2014 from http://www.johndcook.com/blog/2009/09/15/mercator-projection/
Robinson, Arthur Howard. (1960). Elements of Cartography, second edition. New York: John Wiley and Sons. p. 82.

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