The world is not flat, but our maps keep making us believe it is

By Steve Liang, Associate Professor, Department of Geomatics Engineering, University of Calgary

Humans have long-suspected that the Earth is round. Theories about a spherical Earth have been around since the time of the ancient Greeks, with Pythagoras reportedly first proposing the idea sometime around 500 B.C. However, it remained a matter of philosophical speculation until Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan provided indisputable proof that the earth was, indeed, round.

But regardless of whether we believe the world is round or not, our maps are decidedly flat. Maps are projections of the latitudes and longitudes of the surface of a sphere. If someone wants to visualize the world on a map, a projection is required. But a sphere can'€™t be represented on a flat plane without distortion, which means all map projections distort in one way or another. Every projection can only preserve certain characteristics, so you have some tradeoffs. As a result, every map application has different projections, depending on what its focus is.

For example, one of the biggest misrepresentations we have is the distortion of Greenland. If you check Google maps right now and zoom out to see the entire flat projection of the world, you will see the size of Greenland to be fairly similar to the size of Africa.

The actual size of Greenland is approximately 0.8 million sq. miles, while Africa is 11.6 million sq. miles  that'€™s 14 times bigger. To see an actual comparison between Greenland and Africa, check out this comparison application.

This misrepresentation problem occurs because of the Mercator projection, which essentially creates increasing distortions of size as you move away from the equator. The closer you get to the North Pole, the more severe the distortion becomes. Here, the projection distorts size so much it'€™s common to completely crop Antarctica off the map. This results in the Northern Hemisphere appearing much larger than it really is. Typically, such projections show the Equator about 60% of the way down the map, diminishing the size and importance of the developing countries.

Although there are already many web mapping frameworks available for researchers to use, they are not practical for Arctic-specific applications. This is because existing web mapping frameworks use the Mercator projection. The lack of an easy-to-use, high performance, and scientifically correct Arctic web mapping system has become a serious problem for Arctic researchers. Those who are not knowledgeable of map projections use Google Maps or similar mapping systems, which means their analyses or interpretations resulting from the maps can contain serious mistakes. Arctic researchers who are knowledgeable in map projections have resorted to implementing non-standard, unique, non-compatible and inefficient systems to mitigate these issues. These groups are now calling for a standard-based, scientifically correct, easy-to-use Arctic web mapping system. This is a platform that ArcticConnect'€™s Arctic Web Map aims to deliver.

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The Arctic Web Map will be officially launched this summer, but the prototype can be accessed here. There have been many challenges in developing this platform, particularly with regards to the performance and map data sources. A well-performing map needs to render the map tiles in the shortest possible time. And the data sources need to include comprehensive and detailed coverage of all pan-Arctic countries.

In order to address these challenges, the Arctic Web Map integrates its map database with the open data from the OpenStreetMap (OSM). The OSM is community-driven, and allows anyone to update its map database. This is particularly useful for remote areas such as the Arctic regions, which are not very populated (and have less commercial interests) and are difficult to access (which makes it expensive to keep map data updated). The Arctic Web Map synchronizes its database with the OSM'€™s very frequently (every 5 to 10 minutes). As a result, it is alway improving and staying up-to-date. By using the Artic Web Map, Arctic researchers can leverage the world-wide mapping community, and reduce the time to find, update and maintain map data from multiple data sources.

To find out more about the ArcticConnect project, which brings together valuable Arctic research and sensor data – including publications, photographs and even artwork – in one online user portal, visit here.