The Peters Projection and the Mercator Map

These two maps were once hotly debated among cartographers

Proponents of the Peters projection map claim that their map is a good, fair, and non-racist view of the world. They're comparing their map to the almost-defunct Mercator map. Unfortunately, geographers and cartographers agree that neither map projection is appropriate for use as a map of our planet.

The Mercator vs. Peters controversy is truly a moot point. Both maps are rectangular projections and are poor representations of the planet.

But here's how each came to prominence and in most cases, misuse.

The Peters Projection

German historian and journalist Arno Peters called a press conference in 1973 to announce his "new" map projection that treated each country fairly by representing area accurately. The Peters projection map used a rectangular coordinate system that showed parallel lines of latitude and longitude.

Skilled at marketing, Arno claimed that his map more fairly displayed third world countries than the "popular" Mercator projection map, which distorts and dramatically enlarges the size of Eurasian and North American countries. 

While the Peters projection does (almost) represent land of equal area equally, all map projections distort the shape of the earth, a sphere. 

Peters Picks up Popularity

 Proponents of the Peters map were vociferous and demanded that organizations switch to the new, "fairer" map of the world.

Even the United Nations Development Programme began using the Peters projection in its maps. But the popularity of the Peters Projection may have been due to a lack of knowledge about basic cartography. 

Today, relatively few organizations use the map, yet the evangelizing continues. 

Peters chose to compare his strange-looking map to the Mercator map because he knew that it was an inappropriate map of the earth.

Defenders of the Peters projection claim that the Mercator projection distorts the size of countries and continents in the Northern Hemisphere and a place like Greenland appears to be the same size as Africa, yet Africa's land mass is actually fourteen times larger. These claims are certainly all true and correct.

The Mercator map was never intended to be used as a wall map and by the time Peters started complaining about it, the Mercator map was well on its way out of fashion anyway.

The Mercator Map

The Mercator projection was developed in 1569 by Gerardus Mercator as a navigation tool. Like the Peters map, the grid is rectangular and lines of latitude and longitude are all parallel. The Mercator map was designed as an aid to navigators since straight lines on the Mercator projection are loxodromes or rhumb lines -- representing lines of constant compass bearing -- perfect for "true" direction.

If a navigator wishes to sail from Spain to the West Indies, all he has to do is draw a line between the two points and the navigator knows which compass direction to continually sail to reach their destination.

The Mercator map has always been a poor projection for a world map, yet due to its rectangular grid and shape, geographically illiterate publishers found it useful for wall maps, atlas maps, and maps in books and newspapers published by non-geographers.

It became the standard map projection in the mental map of most westerners. The argument against the Mercator projection by the pro-Peters folks usually discusses its "advantage for colonial powers" by making Europe look a lot larger than it actually is on the globe.

Mercator No Longer Widely Used

Fortunately, over the past few decades, the Mercator projection has fallen into disuse from many reliable sources. In a 1980s study, two British geographers discovered that the Mercator map did not exist among dozens of atlases examined.

But some major map companies still produce wall maps using the Mercator projection. 

In 1989, seven North American professional geographic organizations (including the American Cartographic Association, National Council for Geographic Education, Association of American Geographers, and the National Geographic Society) adopted a resolution that called for a ban on all rectangular coordinate maps.

The resolution called for the complete elimination of use of the Mercator as well as the Peters projection. But what to replace them with?

Alternatives to Mercator and Peters

Non-rectangular maps have been around for a long time. The National Geographic Society adopted the Van der Grinten projection, which encloses the world in a circle, in 1922. Then in 1988, they switched to the Robinson projection, on which the high latitudes are less distorted in size (but more so in shape). Also in 1998, the Society began using the Winkel Tripel projection, which provides a slightly better balance between size and shape than the Robinson projection.

Compromise projections like the Robinson or Winkle Tripel present the world in a more globe-like look and are strongly encouraged by geographers. These are the types of projections you'll see on maps of continents or of the world today.