World map

Is Greenland actually bigger than Africa or Australia?

This question is common when looking at the most popular online maps. To anyone with a globe, the answer is clear: Of course not.

However, why, then, does it looks like it is?

To explain this, we have dive into the details about how cartographers represent the Earth.

Greenland actually

The Earth is round, and maps are not; they are flat. The question of how to project a three-dimensional, spherical Earth onto a two-dimensional, flat surface is old; early cartographers tried to find the best way to solve this problem. In the end, cartographers found a solution: Use complex mathematical transformations called map projections.

One of the most popular, especially for nautical maps, was the Mercator projection. Sailors used these projections a lot for navigational purposes, especially when they were exploring the New World and crossing oceans. The main characteristics of the Mercator projection are that it represents lines of the same course as straight segments and conserves the angles with meridians.

To put it more simply, in a Mercator projection, the angles on the curved Earth are the same as on a plain 2D map.

Greenland and Africa

Fast forward today, when Google introduced Google Maps, they used the Spherical Mercator projection for their maps, or also known as Web Mercator projection. Later, other web services adopted that projection too, namely OpenStreetMap, Bing Maps, Here Maps, and MapQuest. The rest is history.

But why did Google pick the Web Mercator projection, which is a variation of the Mercator projection? For web maps, Web Mercator was well-suited because the world map can be zoomed seamlessly to a local area, or to large scales, where there is relatively little distortion. However, one of the downsides, it is distorting and exaggerating of the size of areas closer to the poles.

It is a known problem and cartographers refer to it as “the Greenland Problem.” On the Web Mercator map, Greenland appears to be the same size as Africa or Australia, yet, in the real word, Africa’s land area is fourteen times larger.

Greenland and Australia

To get a better picture of this phenomenon, go and play The Mercator Puzzle. It is an excellent way to visualize the distortions inherent in the Mercator projection through the fun game. You need to click and drag the countries to see just how dramatically larger or smaller they become as you move them closer to and further away from the equator.

And to return to our initial question, if you still believe that Greenland is bigger than Africa or Australia, just because it appears as Google is saying so, check the game, and it will blow your mind.