Do you realize how tiny Greenland really is? The most common type of map hugely distorts its true size, as this GIF by Tom Phillips shows. It starts showing how Greenland looks on a Mercator projection, but then Phillips drags the shape down to reveal Greenland's true size.
Lovely bit of work on how map projections are weird. Greenland is just taking the piss. http://t.co/lhuta1RRvI pic.twitter.com/eqbDi7v9DP— Tom Phillips (@flashboy) September 8, 2015
That GIF comes from a new interactive map project, the True Size. It lets you visualize how big countries really are, rather than how big they appear when distorted on a map. Created by James Talmage and Damon Maneice, the site uses Google Maps to show the actual size of different countries and landmasses. You can drag countries around the map, and they'll dynamically shift to show how big they are relative to each other. Sometimes that reveals massive distortions, like with Greenland.
For example, look how the United States, China, and India would all almost fit onto Africa:
Mercator Projections, the type of map Google and many other services use, were made for navigating the ocean, not visualizing the size of landmasses. So while it's great for neatly laying out routes on perfectly straight latitude and longitude lines, its distortions make things closer to the poles appear much larger and shift countries to the wrong regions on the map.
The Mercator projection has become increasingly controversial, and the debate even includes a West Wing episode, which inspired Talmage and Maneice. It eloquently states the argument that the Mercator projection shortchanges areas like Africa, and by making Africa look smaller, the continent occupies a smaller global mindshare than it should (though note that Mercator was Flemish, not German, as the bantering cartographer says):
The alternative suggested in the video is the Gall-Peters projection, which tries to correct for the Mercator projection's inaccuracies.
As compelling as Aaron Sorkin's West Wing dialogue may be, the True Size website may be even more impressive. Words can explain a lot about the shortcomings of the Mercator projection. But a picture of Alaska, shrunk to reality, might be worth even more: