Of Map Projections Obscure

A thought just popped into my head that I had to share with you: in worldbuilding or in real-life geography maps are all-important, like the fish we swim in, yet relatively few dive into map projections, the art of representing a three-dimensional globe on a two-dimensional surface, beyond a few defaults we’re habituated to. Big mistake! There’s a whole rich world out there, and several projections that, in my humble opinion, deserve far wider use than they currently enjoy.

Famously, for a long time the default map projection was the Mercator projection, which has as its chief virtue the fact that every rectangle represents the same amount of longitude and latitude (1 degree by 1 degree, for example), which aids navigation. The biggest detriment is areas rapidly inflate as you head toward the polls, leading to rather hideous distortion of areas and even shapes.

Mercator projection world map by Strebe of Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Sacrificing the accuracy of angles and area in favor of accurate proportions of area instead is the Mollweide projection, commonly seen but usually in scientific applications for whatever reason, despite not looking too bad. Notice, though, that the shapes of land near the poles and away from the central meridian become very distorted.

Mollweide projection world map by Strebe of Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Most often seen as a replacement for the good old Mercator are the compromise projections, those that strike a balance between shape, area, angles, and so forth to present an aesthetically appealing picture that is useful as an overview of the Earth’s geography. The Robinson projection is one such projection that was created in 1963 for Rand McNally’s reference books and is still commonly seen.

Robinson projection world map by Strebe of Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Famously, National Geographic replaced the Robinson projection with the Winkel tripel projection, which in my view does represent an improvement; notice the lines of latitude curve instead of being straight lines. Areas flay outward toward the outer midsection, but not severely so, and it certainly represents the shapes of high-latitude lands better.

Winkel tripel projection world map by Strebe of Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

In my view, however, the Kavrayskiy VII projection might be superior for a reference-atlas-style overview of the Earth versus either the Robinson or Winkel tripel projections; consider that Kavrayskiy’s projection has less distortion than either despite having straight parallel lines of latitude a la the Robinson. One would think this would be a map projection very aesthetically appealing to most people compared to the alternatives, but nevertheless it’s never found wide use outside the former Soviet Union. If you ask me that should change.

Kavrayskiy VII projection world map by Strebe of Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA 3.0.

But the real contender in my view does away with the whole idea of representing the Earth as a rectangle, an ellipsoid, or some unholy hybrid, instead slicing the Earth’s surface into the shape of icosahedron; in this way Earth’s surface can be presented with a minimum of distortion, a la an improved version of the compromise projections…but at the price of interrupting the map so it’s no longer completely contiguous. However, the beauty of the icosahedral shape, as opposed to the various other shapes other interrupted map projections use to represent the Earth, is that the continents can be fitted so no land is interrupted, only ocean. Leading to this, Buckminster Fuller’s “Dymaxion projection”.

Dymaxion projection world map by Justin Kunimune of Wikipedia.

This map projection sometimes makes appearances in applications where the connectivity and proximity of the Earth’s continents need to be viewed, such as the migrations of the hunter-gatherer era, but in my view the Fuller map deserves much more widespread use. The shapes and areas of all the continents are preserved to remarkably near their true values, the grand sweep of the Earth’s land is clearly visible like in no other projection, and it’s very aesthetically pleasing, not to mention stimulative of a whole new way of seeing the Earth than “north up-south down”; indeed, there is no orientation for the Dymaxion map that is obviously correct or best, which is something of a problem when trying to figure out cardinal directions, but for many purposes you don’t really need that aspect.

Certainly quite underrated, yet in both real-life geography and fictional worldbuilding you hardly ever see it. A crying shame! I’ve always had a soft spot for the Kavrayskiy and Dymaxion projections myself, but there are many more you can browse at Wikipedia’s helpful list. Which inspire you the most?

3 Replies to “Of Map Projections Obscure”

  1. I rather like the Goode Homolosine projection, which splits the oceans for the sake of keeping areas and shapes consistent while not throwing compass directions off too much.

    1. Never cared for that one much myself, but it is a good answer; a useful projection with interesting properties, and not one of the ones you see every day. 🙂

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