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Elegant Figures

Map Projections Matter

February 24th, 2011 by Robert Simmon

A few weeks ago I stumbled on this headline and image from the UK Daily Mail Online:

World of two halves! Map shows most of Northern Hemisphere is covered in snow and ice.
Global cylindrical equirectangular map of snow and ice.

Most of the Northern Hemisphere was covered in snow and ice a few weeks ago? (The image dates from late January/early February—I couldn’t find the exact date.) Really? At first glance it’s a plausible claim, but there’s a problem. The map is in a cylindrical equirectangular projection, which distorts relative areas—regions north and south of the equator appear larger on the map than they are in reality. The higher the latitude, the larger the exaggeration. As a result, a much higher percentage of the Earth’s surface appears to be covered in snow or ice than really is.

After transforming the map to an equal-area projection (in this case Mollweide, which also preserves straight lines of latitude) it’s obvious that most of the Northern Hemisphere remains snow and ice free, even in mid-winter:

Global map of snow and ice in the Mollweide projection.

A map showing just the Northern Hemisphere (azimuthal equal area, centered on the North Pole) makes is yet more clear:

Northern Hemisphere map of snow and ice in an azimuthal equal area projection.

For maps of measured quantities on the Earth’s surface (like snow, temperature, rainfall, or vegetation) it’s important to choose a projection carefully, to minimize misunderstandings of the underlying data. It’s far too easy for a map to exaggerate one area at the expense of another. It’s also important to keep projections consistent when displaying a time series, or comparing datasets to one another.

Despite the major flaw of not being equal area, cylindrical equirectangular (which goes by many other names) is very useful: it’s the standard projection for importing into a 3D program and wrapping around a sphere, and it’s easy to define the corner points and scale for import into software to transform to other map projections. I did all the reprojections with the excellent tool G.Projector, which I’ve written about before.

For more information about map projections, see the USGS page Map Projections, the National Atlas’ Map Projections: From Spherical Earth to Flat Map, and the Wolfram Mathworld Map Projection site. For an in-depth discussion, read Map Projections—A Working Manual, (PDF) also from the USGS.

(As far as I can tell, the snow and ice map was originally from the NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find archived images on their site, so I had to use the original low resolution and highly compressed image from the Daily Mail.)

6 Responses to “Map Projections Matter”

  1. David Hargrove says:

    Another exceptionally informative and compelling post. Thank you!

  2. jim says:

    Can you use this tool to correct maps showing the extent of the last ice age? The same kind of maps distort the picture of how much ice was upon the Earth during the past million years. thanks, jim

  3. jim says:

    The area above 60 degrees north is always shown on maps that are distorted as you show and when the Arctic is shown in a map drawn with the pole at the center the size of the Arctic Ocean is seen as a much smaller body of water. Good job.

  4. Robert Simmon says:

    Depending on the format of the maps, sure. Unfortunately, I don’t have any maps of the last glacial maximum at the moment.

  5. El adnani says:

    S’il y a extension de la glace pourquoi parle -t-on du r├ęchauffement climatique??!!!!!!!!

  6. Debbie Hall says:

    Thanks for this most important point in geography. We were having this very discussion and this was an excellent example of how a little “mis” information can go along way to mislead. I appreciate your information.