Real Country Sizes Shown on Mercator Projection

Posted In: Maps
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I remember as a child thinking that Alaska was as large as 1/2 of the continental US. Later, however, I learned that while it is the largest state, it is actually only about 1/5 the size of the lower 48 states. My son has also remarked that Greenland is very big. And while it is very big, it’s nowhere near the size of the continent of Africa.

The map above shows the distortion in sizes of countries due to the mercator projection. Pressing on the button animates the country ‘shrinking’ to its actual size or ‘growing’ to the size shown on the mercator projection. It was inspired by a similar animation that I saw on reddit and decided I wanted to try to build the same thing.

The mercator projection is a commonly used projection on computer maps because it has perpendicular latitude and longitude lines (forming rectangles). It is formed by projecting the glob onto a cylinder A variant of the was adopted by Google maps, which helped establish it as the informal standard for web-based maps (although Google maps now uses a globe view, instead of a map projection when zooming out to a very wide view).

Areas far from the equator are distorted in terms of their distances and are shown much larger than they actually are. This is one of the major issues with a projection of a globe onto a cylinder area. This is why Greenland, Russia and Canada shrink so much in the animation, they are fairly high in latitude in the Northern Hemisphere.

This next graph shows each country plotted with their actual land area and apparent land area as shown on a Mercator projection. The further the countries are from the 1:1 line the greater the overestimate of their size from the Mercator (also color coded to be red). It is a logarithmic plot showing many different orders of magnitude in country size. The table also shows the top 10 countries whose size is overestimated (and the difference in land area in square kilometers or as a percentage reduction from the size in the Mercator projection).

As it shows, Greenland is the country that has the largest percent difference between its apparent size in a Mercator projection and it’s real size (it’s only about 1/4 of the apparent size). And Russia is the country with the largest absolute difference between these two sizes.

mercator projection real size

Data and tools: This visualization was made using the Leafletjs javascript mapping library and country shapefiles (converted to geojson). I calculated the area in two ways, one assuming latitude and longitude are rectangular coordinates (i.e. Mercator projection) and the other was the actual area. Then I calculated the latitude and longitude coordinates for the outline of the “real” size by modifying the original latitude and longitude by the ratio of these two areas to draw the new smaller, “real” country size.




2 Comments »


2 Responses to Real Country Sizes Shown on Mercator Projection

  1. David Wallance says:

    Don’t understand why nearly all of the shrinkage is north of the equator. Shouldn’t it be distributed equally north and south?

    • chris says:

      The shrinkage is a function of latitude and the confusion stems from the fact that the equator isn’t shown on the map. Most countries lie north of the equator (which is south of the wide part of Africa and south of India).

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