Why Do Two Dimensional Maps of Earth Have Distortions?

February 15, 2024

Have you ever looked at a world map and noticed that some areas look bigger or smaller than others? This is a result of map distortion. Every flat map is distorted in some way because the earth is a sphere and maps are two dimensional projections on a plane. Maps are based on mathematical rules that transfer data from a three dimensional object to a two dimensional surface (paper). This process is called map projection and causes various types of distortion such as size, direction, shape, and distance.

The most common world map used today is the Mercator projection. This is a conformal map that preserves angles, but it also has the problem of huge size distortion in the top and bottom regions. It's hard to find any flat map that doesn't distort something because you have to choose a mathematical rule to go from a sphere to a plane and all of these rules must cause distortion.

A new map has been developed by researchers at Drexel University and Princeton University that they claim is the most accurate to date. This map uses a different type of mathematical projection to reduce distortion. It's a Lambert Conformal Conic. This map is less distorted than the current Mercator projection but still has problems with lengths of lines, especially at the poles where great circles converge and parallels shorten. In order to address this issue, the team mapped out every point of latitude and longitude on the ellipsoid in the Lambert Conformal Conic and then compared it to the points of the same latitude and longitude on the equator of the current Mercator projection. The new map has a lower Goldberg-Gott score and has more accurate distances.


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