Every Tuesday, we ask Jeopardy! know-it-all Ken Jennings to blow our minds by debunking a cherished myth that “everybody knows” — even though it’s dead wrong. Since Ken’s new book Maphead, about geography nerds, hits shelves September 20, we pulled him away from the gazetteer long enough for him to demolish four incredibly wrong “facts” about geography.
Map Myth #2: Greenland Is Big. Like, Continent Big.
This is the world, as depicted in the venerable Mercator projection seen behind generations of third-grade teachers, news anchors, and movie NORAD generals.
Greenland, you have probably noticed, is ginormous. Bigger than South America, bigger than three Australias. Mercator Greenland could swallow us whole and then use Chile as a toothpick. As a result of this map, generations of schoolchildren have grown up thinking that Greenland — Earth’s largest island, at 830,000 square miles — is a snowy wasteland the size of Africa. It’s not. It’s not even close.
Greenland looks fourteen times bigger than it should on Mercator maps because Mercator’s was a “conformal” projection—it maintains at all costs the accuracy of angles while saying “Go to hell!” to little details like area and distance. As a result, the Earth’s polar regions are as overinflated as Kanye West’s ego. Things get so crazy up north on a Mercator map that you can’t even draw the North Pole. Mathematically, it would be an infinite distance from the Equator.
Here’s how Greenland looks on an equal-area map projection (this is one called Gall-Peters).
Wow. The great and powerful Oz has been revealed as a tiny old man behind a curtain. In its proper proportion, the world’s biggest island isn’t the size of Africa. In fact, it’s considerably smaller than, say, Algeria, a single country in Africa. Sorry, Greenland. You had us going there for a while.
Quick Quiz: The United States relinquished any claim to Greenland in a 1916 treaty. What current piece of American territory did the U.S. get from Denmark in return?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and the forthcoming Maphead. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.