Things That Matter: Map Projections

Mercator v. Winkle Tripel

Map projections don’t get much play in the news these days, what with the economy continually going to hell. Yet they are truly one of the most contentious topics among cartographers today. Most are familiar with the Mercator project (ideal for sailors due to their true navigational charts) and the Winkel Tripel (found in most text books and National Geographic since formal adoption in 1997). Despite the ubiquity of rectangular world maps, for years the American Cartographic Association’s has called for their abandonment in favor of a projection that more accurately displays our world, despite the fact that every map must make compromises in depiction of a spherical shape.

In 1989 and 1990, after some internal debate, seven North American geographic organizations adopted the following resolution, which rejected all rectangular world maps, a category that includes both the Mercator and the Gall–Peters projections:

WHEREAS, the earth is round with a coordinate system composed entirely of circles, and

WHEREAS, flat world maps are more useful than globe maps, but flattening the globe surface necessarily greatly changes the appearance of Earth’s features and coordinate systems, and

WHEREAS, world maps have a powerful and lasting effect on people’s impressions of the shapes and sizes of lands and seas, their arrangement, and the nature of the coordinate system, and

WHEREAS, frequently seeing a greatly distorted map tends to make it “look right,”

THEREFORE, we strongly urge book and map publishers, the media and government agencies to cease using rectangular world maps for general purposes or artistic displays. Such maps promote serious, erroneous conceptions by severely distorting large sections of the world, by showing the round Earth as having straight edges and sharp corners, by representing most distances and direct routes incorrectly, and by portraying the circular coordinate system as a squared grid. The most widely displayed rectangular world map is the Mercator (in fact a navigational diagram devised for nautical charts), but other rectangular world maps proposed as replacements for the Mercator also display a greatly distorted image of the spherical Earth.

Think it doesn’t matter? Think it’s just a bunch of poindexters sitting around tapping their slide rules against their collective shoe? Wrong!

Who can forget the Baker-Shevardnadze agreement?

On June 1, 1990, then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze signed a deal demarcating the boundary between Russian and US territory in the Bering and Chukotka Seas. The purpose of the deal was to clear up an 1867 deal ceding Alaska to the United States. After the deal was struck, it was unclear whether the boundary used the Mercator projection (a straight line on the map) or the conformal projection (a straight line across the surface of the earth).

Enter Baker and Shevardnadze who came to a compromise between both projections that seemed to be a perfect marriage for all parties involved. But the honeymoon was not to last.  The USSR contended the U.S. had cheated them by using a “crooked boundary,” yielding the lion’s share of assets and minerals to the U.S. With no way around the dispute the USSR refused to ratify the treaty before its collapse and Russia declared the treaty null. Since then, the U.S. has continued efforts to enforce the boundary based on the Baker-Shevardnadze agreement.

Via the BBC and Richard Sale.

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