Archive for April, 2012


A Couple of Extra Oceans

Today’s maps come to my attention via my colleague Sam Matthews, whom I hope to get to contribute to this blog someday. He alerted me to and the wealth of intriguing and often unfortunate cartographic specimens to be found there. They have lots of material worth discussing, but for now, I’m just going to pick out a couple to highlight a problem I’ve not talked about before. Let’s start with their map of world mineral resources.

via Click to visit.

Fairly innocuous-looking, to be sure. Tan land, blue water. Standard stuff. But if you look carefully, and you obsess about projections as I do, you’ll see that this map not only has blue water, but that it’s sitting on a blue background. That is to say, there is no distinction between the map and the background it’s drawn on. The color used on this map to mean “water” is also used for areas that are not a map. Here’s a hastily annotated copy to help explain:

A lot of people looking at this map are going to think that there’s a bunch of extra water on the planet that simply doesn’t exist. The Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia is only about 50 miles wide. Here, it looks like a huge expanse hundreds of miles across. And this map isn’t the worst of them. Here’s another one from the same site:

via Click to visit site.

This map has an entire extra ocean added at the top, a vast unnamed and unexplored expanse beyond the Arctic Ocean, somehow more north than the North Pole itself. It’s bizarre and unnecessary, and worse, it’s misleading. If you want to know why Americans have such poor knowledge of world geography, at least a fraction of the answer lies in the above, along with all of the other carelessly assembled maps that people end up learning from.

Both of these maps could be fixed by simply inserting a neatline. A neatline is a border, usually just a black line, that separates the map from the rest of the page. The lines I have drawn in my annotated examples above are neatlines, albeit approximated. In cases like this, neatlines are the difference between “map sitting on a blue background” and “map of an alternate dimension where there are extra oceans.”

I’m actually not a fan of neatlines — I think they’re frequently unnecessary, as I argue in a post on my other blog today. While these maps would be improved by adding a neatline, they could skip it entirely by just making the page background something other than the color of the water. A bold concept, but I’m willing to promote it. Imagine: a map with blue water and a white background.

I'm going to patent this!

This phantom ocean problem issue crops up a lot with maps made using projections that aren’t rectangular, like the venerable Robinson projection above, or the Winkel Tripel. These maps have curved edges, and I suppose that bothers people who want maps to fit inside rectangles. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe they ran a focus group and found out that people hate non-rectangular maps, or that they cause seizures or something, and that we ought to add a few extra seas here and there to fill it out.

Like most maps featured here, I can’t entirely fathom what goes on in the mapmaker’s head that makes them think it’s alright to just make up some extra water. The slogan for is “We do magic to Maps.” Maybe this is what they mean.

Critical geographers, I’m sure, could have a field day with what such maps say about people. The idea here seems to be that the landforms on the map are data, and that the oceans are merely filler, no better than the background. And it’s true, we’re a pretty land-centered species, for obvious reasons. Bodies of water are often second-class citizens on many maps, thought of only as “not-land,” or “no data.” And phantom oceans, like the above, are probably the result.


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