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 mapsofworld.com 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 mapsofworld.com. 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 mapsofworld.com. 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 mapsofworld.com 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.

12 Responses to “A Couple of Extra Oceans”

  1. 1 Ian A.
    25th April, 2012 at 11:20 am

    I see where your misconception comes from… These are not actually maps of Earth. These are maps of the “Earth Map” on Ringworld.

  2. 2 Ian A.
    25th April, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Also, why those four particular explorers and no others?

    • 3 Daniel Huffman
      25th April, 2012 at 11:45 am

      The choice is a bit odd. Cabot, but not Hudson? Not to mention, of course, the eurocentrism, which is what I would expect (“Major” = White).

  3. 4 Frédéric Grosshans
    25th April, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    These maps has another problem, worse than the extra ocean : the North arrow is wrong for almost all the points onf the map. The only exception being the Greenwich meridian dans the equator. For the second map, the rrow is close to Alsaka, but in Ala&ska, this direction is more someting like North-West !

    • 5 Daniel Huffman
      25th April, 2012 at 1:03 pm

      Absolutely true, and thanks for pointing that out. I thought about bringing it up, but got caught up in this one issue that I left everything else aside.

  4. 26th April, 2012 at 4:30 am

    Nice find – these little details are very important. It’s the url that bugs me though; presumably mapsoftheworld.com was taken.

  5. 7 Gérard
    27th April, 2012 at 2:18 am

    names of explorations in the legend AND map….

  6. 27th April, 2012 at 7:13 am

    Great post! I would add the scale bar to the list of problems with this map, along with the north arrow. Please keep writing, your blog is very thought provoking and a pleasure to read!

  7. 9 Hig
    2nd May, 2012 at 12:35 am

    I realize this is not the focus of your critique, but I question the data on that “mineral map of the world.” I live in Alaska and work on resource issues, and though we do have coal, oil, and gold (as well as some others… copper for example), the only points in Alaska that I can make sense of are the oil and the western coal mark. The eastern coal mark makes no sense… it’s one of the few parts of the state that has no significant coal. And the gold… it may be that there are some deposits in the NE of the state, but the west and south are where most gold exploration and extraction has taken place.

    So I’m guessing that if half the data in Alaska is wrong, there are problems elsewhere too.

    Probably not the mapmaker’s fault… instead the fault of whatever database they used.

    • 7th May, 2012 at 5:03 pm

      Ditto on there being no gold shown in California – not that there’s much left now, but there has been and leaving that off the map seems odd.

      Thanks for the comments on the north arrows and scale bars – just this morning I had to explain why the north arrows were “different” on two maps of the same area to a coworker (who hadn’t realized they were in two different projections) – it’s one of my pet peeves.

  8. 11 Azam Hussain
    29th May, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    I’m sorry but your solution of placing the map on a white background is also misleading as it gave me the impression that our entire flat planet was surrounded by what I must assume is a frosty wonderland.

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