What's the real size of Africa? How Western states used maps to downplay size of continent

Story highlights

  • The Mercator projection has been used as a template for world maps since 1569
  • It shows Africa as being smaller than it is
  • Boston schools are taking a stand against it by introducing another projection

(CNN)On a typical world map, Canada is a vast nation. Home to six time zones, its endless plains spread from ocean to ocean, dominating great swathes of the northern half of the globe. But, in reality, three Canadas would comfortably fit inside Africa.

Our world map is wildly misleading. It's all down to the European cartographer Geert de Kremer, better known as Mercator, and his 16th century map projection -- a common template for world maps today -- which distorts the size of countries.
    Now, schools in Boston are taking a stand against the tradition by introducing the lesser-known Peters projection from the 1970s (also called Gall-Peters projection) in classrooms, to teach children the real size of the continents.
    The move is part of a wider initiative to remove bias within education.
    "By incorporating the Peters projection maps -- an equal area representation -- into classrooms, we are opening the door for students to view the world in a different light," says Natacha Scott, social studies director at Boston Public Schools.
    The initiative will see students comparing different maps.
    "By exploring geography, we also hope to increase an awareness of the relationship between themselves to other countries, communities, cultures and individuals around the world," Scott adds.
    The Peters projection maps areas in their actual sizes relative to each other, but in doing so distorts their shapes.
    Though a convenient way to chart the world, Mercator's map distorts proportions, making some landmasses larger that they are in reality.
    "Somehow this map projection came to be used on most world maps, especially those produced for classrooms since the beginning of the 1900s," says Menno-Jan Kraak, president of the International Cartographic Association and professor of cartography at the University of Twente, Netherlands.
    "Most of us have grown up with this world image."

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