Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

A new world map projection minimises the inherent problems of flattening the globe

  • Written by  Katie Burton
  • Published in Mapping
The new double-sided projection by Gott, Goldberg and Vanderbei The new double-sided projection by Gott, Goldberg and Vanderbei
16 Apr
2021
A new, double-sided world map projection seeks to minimise the problems inherent in flattening the globe 

The problem of how to depict the curved surface of the Earth on a flat map has troubled cartographers for centuries. There are many ways of doing it, but they all have downsides.

Take one of the most famous: the cylindrical Mercator projection, used by Google Maps. Devised by the Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569, it prioritised navigation for sailors and enabled sailors to identify the shortest distance between two points. However, this made it less effective for anyone seeking to grasp the relative size of Earth’s landmasses – countries further from the equator are famously stretched, with Antarctica appearing bigger than everything else combined. It’s also difficult to establish distance at the edges of the map where the Pacific Ocean is split. Japan and Hawaii look very far apart, but the distance between the two is actually 6,625 kilometres, not much further than the 5,830 kilometres that separate Hawaii and mainland USA.

More useful to those uninterested in setting sail is the Winkel Tripel projection, which is often used in magazines. Created by German cartographer Oswald Winkel in 1921, it represents the poles more accurately, but there’s still some distortion and the same issues apply to the Pacific.

Winkel TripelAn example of the Winkel Tripel projection

Stay connected with the Geographical newsletter!
signup buttonIn these turbulent times, we’re committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

Get Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday!

A group of astrophysicists has sought to at least partially solve these problems with a new projection. The two-sided, round image was designed to minimise six types of distortion that flat maps can introduce: local shapes, areas, distances, flexion (bending), skewness (lopsidedness) and boundary cuts (continuity gaps).

It builds on previous work by two members of the team, J Richard Gott, an emeritus professor of astrophysics at Princeton University, and David Goldberg, a professor of physics at Drexel University, who in 2007 used these six categories to invent a scoring system for maps in which lower numbers represent less distortion. Applying the scoring system to their new map (created in collaboration with Robert Vanderbei, a professor of operations research and financial engineering) results in a score of 0.881, the lowest of any world map the researchers are aware of. Under the same system, Winkel Tripel gets 4.563 and Mercator 8.296.

shutterstock 1739784761
An example of the Mercator projection

There are still small errors in both local shapes and areas, but because it seeks to minimise all six distortions, rather than optimising one at the expense of the other, the researchers claim that overall accuracy is better. They say that distances are off by no more than 22.2 per cent, while areas at the edges are only 1.57 times larger than at the centre.

The map can be displayed in two ways, with either the Eastern and Western Hemispheres on the two sides, or the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (as above), which allows the equator to run around the edge. ‘Our map is actually more like the globe than other flat maps,’ Gott said. ‘To see all of the globe, you have to rotate it; to see all of our new map, you simply have to flip it over.’

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MONTHLY PRINT MAGAZINE!
Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...

Deserts

The semi-autonomous Russian republic of Kalmykia sits at the forefront…

Cities

In Mogadishu, the troubled capital of Somalia, tentative moves towards…

Mountains

Researchers have predicted the birth of a new mountain range,…

Forests

Archaeological work around Lake Malawi suggests that humans manipulated the…

Water

Maida Bilal risked all to prevent contractors building a dam…

Places

Writer and photographer John Gilbey needed a cheap way of…

Water

An EU project has revealed the extent of river fragmentation…

Mapping

A new, double-sided world map projection seeks to minimise the…

Water

 Water scarcity is predicted to rise – two experts share…

Mountains

New collaborative research from the University of Oxford and the…

Places

Conceived during the late 1800s, Letchworth Garden City was the…

Places

Multiple failed attempts to build on a patch of land…

Deserts

New 'deep learning' technology is helping to identify trees in…

Places

The land around the Kinabatangan River in the state of…

Places

Highlights from the column that keeps you connected with the…

Places

At the end of a perplexing and thought-provoking year, we…

Places

The city of Mosul is slowly putting itself back together…

Places

The story of a unique Italo-Slovenian community that came to…

Places

Bisecting Georgia's northwestern region, the Enguri River has come to…