Geographic Information Systems

Dorothy Helmken Presents: Fun with Maps

And by fun, I mean stress and betrayal!

So, if you have ever seen the map below, you should be just as put out as I am about what I’m about to tell you. This map is a LIE.

I know. It LOOKS normal, but it’s not.

The Mercator map is commonplace in many American public school classrooms. I know I’m not the only one who remembers recoiling in fear every time my teacher pulled the old, dusty map down from the broken rollers that were barely holding on thanks to the duct tape from a shoe-string auxiliary budget repair job. The maps were outdated in the early 2000’s when I was in high school and haven’t been changed yet. I’m not surprised given that they’re easy to read and teach because they are standardized in latitude and longitude, but that creates a problem with representation of the actual size of the countries they’re portraying.

For example:

Do you see it?

In terms of land mass, Greenland looks to be about the same size as Africa according to this map. The size of Greenland is about 836,300 mi² while Africa is about 11.73 million mi². That means Greenland is less than 1/10 the size of Africa! And that’s not the only problem.

As you can probably guess, getting the map to show actual land masses while still being legible and useful is an art. What we looked at this week was alternative coordinate systems, like the ones below:

We have a heart 💙 (Bonne), a basketball 🏀 (Stereographic), a star ⭐ (Berghaus Star AAG), and a peach 🍑 (Polyconic).

These might not be entirely accurate, but at least they are closer to the true land masses. Look for Greenland and Africa to compare!

Don’t these look so neat?

This project was great to help me see the disparities in land distribution as it’s commonly visualized. For example, if we can find ways to incorporate accurate depictions of land masses when discussing social inequalities, we’d have a more accurate representation of the need faced by certain communities. Even just knowing is enough to help bridge that gap, but accurate representation is needed.

This post meets the requirements of Assignment 3 for Spring 2021 ESS302 at Drew University.

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