WootBot


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Staff

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.

 

SpenceMan01


quality posts: 15 Private Messages SpenceMan01

What are the Danish West Indies (aka the US Virgin Islands)?

Listen2Reason


quality posts: 4 Private Messages Listen2Reason

Yeah, but we all knew this already, didn't we?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8zBC2dvERM

bruzr


quality posts: 1 Private Messages bruzr

What is Solvang, California?

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runtd


quality posts: 0 Private Messages runtd

What of the recent findings that Greenland might be three islands underneath the ice sheet?

grantdavis


quality posts: 0 Private Messages grantdavis

Is Greenland the big white one?

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

grantdavis wrote:Is Greenland the big white one?



Yes, unless you are talking about the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers, in which case "the big white one" is Bill Walton.

The question of whether Greenland (or Antarctica) might actually be multiple islands is interesting, but sort of academic. It just comes down to where sea level would intersect its various ups and downs if there were no ice present.

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

Comparing Greenland in the first map to the second one just put me in mind of George Costanza. "There was shrinkage! SHRINKAGE!!!"

hockeybud0


quality posts: 1 Private Messages hockeybud0
runtd wrote:What of the recent findings that Greenland might be three islands underneath the ice sheet?



Hey, hey! We'll find out pretty soon after all that pesky ice melts away.

hockeybud0


quality posts: 1 Private Messages hockeybud0
runtd wrote:What of the recent findings that Greenland might be three islands underneath the ice sheet?



Hey, hey! We'll find out pretty soon after all that pesky ice melts away.

MathUhhhSaurus


quality posts: 58 Private Messages MathUhhhSaurus

And this is why I hate maps when it comes to a large scale.
There is always going to be a problem when you attempt to put a spherical surface on a flat, 2-dimensional surface.
Nothing beats the good ole' globe!

Examine Bindle of Carrots.
What Bindle of Carrots?

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

hockeybud0 wrote:Hey, hey! We'll find out pretty soon after all that pesky ice melts away.



Except that then the sea level will rise as well!

rraszews


quality posts: 0 Private Messages rraszews

As much as I appreciate hearing yet another person debunk the Greenland myth, I notice that the article does what everyone does when they introduce the Mercator map: claim that it's what everyone was taught from in school.

It wasn't until college that I ever saw a mercator map outside of the chapter in the geography book on different kinds of map projections. The standard map used in US classrooms to teach schoolchildren has been the Robinson projection (which is a compromise projection, and doesn't have the greenland problem) since the 1970s, since it is the primary map used by Rand McNally and National Geographic (National Geo. switched to a new compromise projection back in '98)

javajulie


quality posts: 2 Private Messages javajulie

C.J.
...but you can't do that.

FALLOW
Why not?

C.J.
'Cause it's freaking me out.

wootvan


quality posts: 62 Private Messages wootvan

The U.S. Virgin Islands. (not the Danish West Indies, which aren't US territories)

whoiskenjennings


quality posts: 7 Private Messages whoiskenjennings

Guest Blogger

rraszews wrote:As much as I appreciate hearing yet another person debunk the Greenland myth



Yawn, yet another...ah, the ennui...

My classroom wall maps in the 1980s were very often Mercator. Hammond, I want to say?

To those who answered the US Virgin Islands (that is, the former Danish West Indies): you are of course correct. We probably got the better deal, especially because Denmark threw in a ton of Legos.

wisesage


quality posts: 3 Private Messages wisesage
whoiskenjennings wrote:...as overinflated as Kanye West’s ego.



This made me laugh. That guy is way too full of himself.

sometimes i like to put on the cape and scream like a monkey.

clickie


quality posts: 0 Private Messages clickie

One of the best things I've ever seen is the Mapparium (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mapparium), located in the Mary Baker Eddy library in Boston. It's a giant three-story-tall stained glass globe you can stand inside (at about equator level) and so you can see all the continents around you at proper scale. That was the first time I truly realized how small Greenland is and how flippin' large Africa is. It's also really cool because it's still using the political boundaries of 1935 and so is a cool history lesson as well as a geography lesson. I only wish they'd let you stand it in for longer than 15 minutes at a time.