Immappancy and the Distortion of Africa

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Shown above is an Amsterdam world map, made in 1689. Notice that some islands and most of North America are missing. Image by Gerard van Schagen.

Shown above is an Amsterdam world map, made in 1689. Notice that some islands and most of North America are missing. Image by Gerard van Schagen.

What is Immappancy? It’s a long word to describe a concept that plagues many – insufficient geographical knowledge. The following conversation might help to explain it.

List the continents in order of size,” I asked an adult family member as I was writing this piece.

Uhm…well, North America…then, that Russia area…what do you call that area, Europe…Asia?”

What are you thinking,” I asked. “Are you picturing a world map?

Well…yes and…Asia is second and…Africa is pretty big.

Why Africa…?”

Remember, that lady spent 17 hours just traveling from Europe to South Africa?”

Okay, so go on…”

South America…uhm…Europe…Australia…any others…?”

Antarctica…

Antarctica…that’s bigger than Australia…” continued the conversation.

Now do you begin to understand the concept of Immappancy?

The Relative Size of the Continents

The actual answer to the order of continents based on area, I suspect, is surprising to many, not just my family member; Asia ranks as the largest at 17.1 m square miles (44.4 m square km) while Africa is second at 11.7 m square miles (30.2 m square km.) Third is North America at 9.4 m square miles (24.2 m square km) and last is Australia at 3.0 m square miles (7.7 m square km.)

Kai Krause calls this insufficient geographical knowledge immappancy, and groups it right up there with other issues such as illiteracy and innumeracy.

Referring to a random survey of American students, Krause reports that many put the population of the United States at one to two billion, the largest in the world.

In addition, the true size of Africa was a particularly extreme worldwide misjudgment. Krause partly blamed it on the highly distorted nature of predominantly used mapping projections such as the Mercator.

In reality, you can fit many major world nations into the land mass of Africa. I personally am always perplexed why many refer nebulously to Africa as though it’s a country, when in fact it contains 56 recognized and de facto states.

The Area of Africa Compared to Select Major World Nations. Image by Kai Krause

The Area of Africa Compared to Select Major World Nations. Image by Kai Krause

Maps versus Globes

Imagine that you type some place name, say Cape Town, into Google Earth.

The first thing you’ll observe will be a small-scale (small features) rotating globe. Then, like a space traveler, you’ll descend to your chosen destination. As the image sharpens you’ll begin to see the large-scale (larger features) details of the site. This allows you to travel seamlessly from a view of a curved surface to that of a flat surface. If you were to take away the details and create symbols to represent the features of the site you’d have a map and you’d think everything was fine. But technically that would not be the case.

Complications arise because a map is a flat model of a round earth. That’s bad to start with because the curvature of the earth causes distortion. There is, of course, much less distortion of the spatial elements of the earth- shape, distance, direction, and distance- on a globe but it’s difficult to carry around a real globe (although Google Earth on your mobile device is helpful.)

Map Projections

The development of maps involves mathematics. Over the centuries, mathematicians created various geometrical schemes known as map projections to represent the curved surface of the earth on flat map sheets. All projections have certain advantages and disadvantages and the selection of one or the other depends chiefly on the user’s needs.

One way to perceive projections is to imagine a light bulb at the center of the earth projecting the earth’s parallels and meridians on to conical, cylindrical and flat surfaces. The result is map projections with advantages and disadvantages. One such projection, the cylindrical (conformal) projection has its point of contact at the equator (parallels are curved except for the equator.) This preserves shapes and direction while areas and true distances, such as the size of Africa which appears smaller, are distorted. The Mercator is an example of this type of projection.

Comparison of the Size of Africa on Mercator and Gall-Peters Map Projections.

Comparison of the Size of Africa on Mercator (right) and Gall-Peters (left) Map Projections.

Critical Viewing

In light of the above discussion of distortions, we should learn to view a map as critically as a written article. You should know the map projection limits and critically view what you see. Don’t be visually and perceptively fooled on subjects such as the size of Africa, because it affects the way you think, and the way your children think, and their children. It creates immappancy.

Resources

Krause, Kai. The True Size of Africa. (2013). Marilink.net. Accessed October 31, 2013.

National Atlas. Map Projections: From Spherical Earth to Flat Map. (2003). Accessed October 31, 2013.

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