What you think the world looks like is probably completely wrong

The 'Equal Earth' map.
The 'Equal Earth' map. Photo credit: International Journal of Geographical Information Science

The world doesn't actually look like what you probably think it does, and mapmakers want to fix that.

The world map many of us grew up with, known as the Mercator projection, has numerous flaws. It wildly distorts the shape and size of countries, particularly those near the poles, for example making Greenland look bigger than Africa and Russia - already enormous - twice the size it really is.

The much-derided Mercator projection.
The much-derided Mercator projection. Photo credit: Wikipedia

The Mercator map, invented in 1596, became popular because it's good for navigation and is a rectangle. But what it's not good for is giving an accurate sense of scale.

The increasingly popular Gall-Peters projection on the other hand is what's known as an equal-area projection - the continents are shown at sizes that correspond to reality, but the shape is all distorted.

The Gall-Peters projection.
The Gall-Peters projection. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Enter the 'Equal Earth' map, produced by cartographers in the US and Australia. It's not only fair to the size of each landmass, but shows the continents in a "visually pleasing and balanced way".

International Journal of Geographical Information Science
Equal Earth. Photo credit: International Journal of Geographical Information Science

"We searched for alternative equal-area map projections for world maps, but could not find any that met all our aesthetic criteria," authors Bojan Šavriča, Tom Patterson, and Bernhard Jen wrote in their paper, published in the International Journal of Geographical Information Science.

"Hence the idea was born to create a new projection that would have more 'eye appeal' compared to existing equal-area projections and to give it the catchy name Equal Earth."

Other attempts at equal-area maps have been pretty ugly, using weird shapes and contortions to display a three-dimensional surface on a two-dimensional plane. If you've ever peeled an orange or a mandarin, you'll see what happens when you lay it down flat.

The Mercator projection has for centuries perpetuated a distorted view of the world, historians have argued, because it makes northern European countries look a lot larger than they really are, and diminished the size of Africa.

This is perhaps best illustrated by showing the true size of Russia when compared with Africa - it's barely half the size - or Greenland, which rather than being as big as Africa could almost completely fit inside Algeria.

thetruesize.com russia
Russia's true size when compared to Africa. Photo credit: thetruesize.com
thetruesize.com Greenland
Greenland and Algeria. Photo credit: thetruesize.com