Posts for Tag: mercator

Real Country Sizes Shown on Mercator Projection (Updated)

Posted In: Maps

Hover or click on a country to see how much it shrinks from the Mercator projection size.

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 globe 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 also 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 height and width in the animation, they are fairly high in latitude in the Northern Hemisphere. Also important is that the closer you are to the poles, the more the distortion when a country is shown on the Mercator projection. Since longitude lines converge at the poles, but are parallel on a Mercator, the closer a part of a country is to the poles, the more that part will get stretched wider relative to a part of a country that is not as close to the poles. As a clear example, see what happens to the southern part of Australia, relative to the northern end. Similarly, the latitude lines also get further apart on a Mercator projection, while on a globe they stay equidistant. This means that the parts of countries that are nearer the poles will get taller, i.e. stretched out from a north-south perspective relative to parts of countries that are further from the poles. You can see this clearly in the northern ends of Russsia and Greenland, where the tops get smushed down.

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.

This is the original graph that keeps the shape of the countries exactly the same and just scales the size. This is incorrect because as you move towards the poles the distances between longitude lines decreases. As a result the tops (northern ends) of countries will shrink more than the bottoms (southern ends) of countries in the Northern Hemisphere and vice versa in the Southern Hemisphere.

Old map that changes sizes but incorrectly preserves the Mercator shape

mercator projection real size


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.

The new coordinates needed to draw the “real size” of the countries are derived by calculating the distance between the center of the country and each of the coordinates in the country’s shapefile. As you move towards the poles on a globe, the distance between longitude lines decreases as a function (cosine) of latitude. In a mercator projection, the longitude lines are shown as equi-distant regardless of latitude. In this calculation, we create a new set of coordinates by calculating the distance between the center of the polygon and each set of coordinates and change the coordinates to reflect the shrinking of distance between longitude lines as you head towards the poles.

In the previous version of this animation, 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.

Data and tools: This visualization was made using the Leafletjs javascript mapping library and country shapefiles (converted to geojson).