Map projections can play funny tricks on people. Recently, over a couple of beers, a Norwegian friend told me that the size of his native land is best imagined as follows: if you rotated Norway around its southernmost tip, it would reach Africa.
Fair enough, it’s a big country!
But a few days later, the geodesist in me felt compelled to check if it is true. Keen on any excuse to play around with maps and projections, I fired up GIS.
We all know that most people look at the world through the lens of the Mercator projection. And indeed, if we rotate Norway on the plane of this projection, it does reach into Africa:
So is it true?
We also know that Mercator famously exaggerates areas towards the pole. So could this make a bloated North swing too far south?
Let’s choose a map projection more suited to the purpose of this particular exercise, e.g. the orthographic projection (a.k.a. “the world from space”) which mimics a globe view.
If we centre this projection on the southern tip of Norway (the point of rotation for this experiment), the distances radiating from this point should remain comparable in any direction (albeit not true in an absolute sense).
And here’s the result:
Alas, Norway does not reach Africa – it only stretches to the French Riviera.
To verify, you can measure it on Google Earth or, even simpler, just look at it on a desk globe.
In other words, it’s yet another myth perpetuated by the Mercator projection. It distorts people’s world views and undermines geographic understanding.
To illustrate the point further, here are the comparisons on the orthographic projection (left) and Mercator projection (right), where the red areas are the Mercator-based rotations of Norway, and the black areas the original and orthographic versions. The scale of the deception is especially apparent with Norway’s arctic islands of Svalbard bloated beyond all proportions: