"The True Size" map lets you move countries around the globe, to show how big they really are

The US, China and India combined: still not quite as big as Africa. Image: The True Size.

The problem, you see, is that the earth isn't flat. This is generally considered to be a good thing: it means you can travel east from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, for example, without falling over the edge – but it's a right pain in the bum for cartographers.

That’s because the surface of a sphere cannot be turned into a flat sheet without some major distortions around the edges. The Mercator Projection is a case in point. Invented by a Flemish geographer, Gerardus Mercator, in the 16th century, it re-imagines the earth as the surface of a cylinder.


When laid out flat, it’s pleasingly rectangular, and its eastern and western edges line up neatly. This projection is pretty useful if you're, say, trying to steer a ship across an ocean, so in its 446 years of life it's become one of the standard maps of the world.

But it's also done some odd things to our idea of how the world looks. In reality, lines of longitude converge at the poles; on the map, they're parallel. As a result, the closer you get to the poles, the more distorted the map becomes, and the bigger things look relative to their actual size.

Thus it is that we’ve all got stuck with maps of the world which show Africa (30.4mkm2) as basically the same size as Greenland (2.2mkm2), rather than a whole order of magnitude bigger.

Until now.

The True Size is a website that lets you compare the size of any nation or US state to other land masses, by allowing you to move them around to anywhere else on the map. So, when left right up in the north of the map, Greenland does indeed look huge:

Place it next to Africa though, and you can see it really isn't all that:

You can see how vast India is, next to uppity islands that conquered it:

Or how small even a big European nation like France would be in Africa:

Some US states are actually pretty big...

...but even the US looks tiny next to Africa. Africa is huge:

The site is the work of James Talmage and Damon Maneice, who were inspired by (what else) an episode of The West Wing. It’s worth quoting an entire speech from the episode in question, in which a guest character argues that cartography can warp how we view the world:

When Third World countries are misrepresented they're likely to be valued less. When Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern... then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.

Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization, when the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the southern... then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes.

Or, to put it another way, Africa is much, much bigger than you think it is – and Europe much, much smaller.

You can play with The True Size map here.

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London needs the reduce its plastic bottle use. Here’s how

What a waste. Image: Getty.

A Labour member of the London Assembly on the city’s plastic problem.

The huge amount of waste created by single-use plastics is a scourge on our capital – and the main culprit is plastic water bottles which are disposed of in their tens of millions each year. Picture this: if the 480bn plastic drinking bottles sold worldwide in 2016 were placed end to end, they would extend more than halfway to the sun.

Worryingly, if urgent action isn’t taken, Euromonitor International have predicted that this figure will rise to 583bn in the next three years. In London, the issue of plastic waste is particularly acute. Londoners consume more plastic bottled water per person than anywhere else in the UK, and last year, the Thames 21 waterways group revealed that plastic bottles make up 10 per cent of all litter found in the Thames.

However, there has been some progress this month with the mayor’s announcement of an extra £6m of funding to go towards reducing plastic waste and improving green spaces. In addition, Network Rail also confirmed plans to install water refill stations in all of its ten London termini stations, including Waterloo and King’s Cross.

One of the solutions to encourage Londoners to think again – before disposing of their plastic bottles after one use – Is to install a network of water refill stations across the capital’s public spaces. This is one of the measures that I have been campaigning for as Chair of the London Assembly Environment Committee, and it was welcome to see the mayor commit to it in his draft London Plan. A portion of the additional £6m of funding that the Mayor recently announced looks to add more public refill stations on top of the 20 originally proposed.


Earlier this month, after ruling out the possibility only months ago, Network Rail performed an abrupt U-turn and announced its intention to provide places to refill water bottles. It is now time for Transport for London (TfL) to consider how they might follow suit. The costs of installing water refill stations could well be a price worth paying when we compare it with the cost of continuing to push our environment to the brink.

However, tackling the deluge of plastic waste in our capital is not just the responsibility of the mayor and transport networks. Small businesses and entertainment venues also have a very significant part to play in ditching single use plastic cups and cutlery. I will be taking a lead on this and lobbying local businesses and venues in Merton and Wandsworth, the area that I represent, to commit to a plastic free pledge.

The facts are stark and should be enough to convince any responsible business owner to take action. Some 38.5m plastic bottles are used every day in the UK. Sadly, according to campaign group Recycle Now, only over half make it to recycling plants, while every day more than 16m are dumped into landfill, burnt or leaked into the environment and oceans.

Providing public water refill stations is an integral facet of the wider strategy to tackle the burgeoning levels of waste and pollution in London. There is a collective responsibility to clean up our streets, parks and rivers – but let’s hope that the major players who can make the biggest difference act on their pledges and don’t bottle it.

Leonie Cooper is a Labour London Assembly Member for Merton & Wandsworth, and the Labour group’s spokesperson on the environment.

Still thirsty? Check out this podcast we did on cities and water shortages.