The Peters Projection and Mercator Map

Is Either Better Than the Other?

Antique map of the world

 

Tetra Images / Getty Images

Proponents of the Peters projection map claim that their map is an accurate, fair, and unbiased depiction of the world when comparing theirs to the almost-defunct Mercator map, which features enlarged depictions of euro-centric countries and continents. Mercator map enthusiasts defend the ease of navigation of their map.

So which projection is better? Unfortunately, geographers and cartographers agree that neither map projection is appropriate—the Mercator vs. Peters controversy is, therefore, a moot point. Both maps are rectangular projections that are poor representations of a spherical planet. But here's how each came to prominence and, in most cases, misuse.

The Mercator Map

The Mercator projection was developed in 1569 by Gerardus Mercator as a navigational tool. This map's grid is rectangular and lines of latitude and longitude are parallel throughout. The Mercator map was designed as an aid to navigators with straight lines, loxodromes or rhumb lines—representing lines of constant compass bearing—that are perfect for "true" direction.

If a navigator wishes to sail from Spain to the West Indies using this map, all they have to do is draw a line between the two points. This tells them which compass direction to continually sail in until they reach their destination. But although this angular layout makes navigation easier, accuracy and bias are major disadvantages that can't be ignored.

Namely, the Mercator projection minimizes non-European or American countries and continents while enlarging privileged world powers. Africa, for example, is depicted as smaller than North America when it is, in reality, three times larger. Many feel that these discrepancies reflect racism and prejudice against underprivileged and developing countries. Pro-Peters folks often argue that this projection merely advantages colonial powers while disadvantaging others.

The Mercator map has always been inadequate as a world map due to its rectangular grid and shape, but geographically illiterate publishers once found it useful for designing wall, atlas, and book maps, even maps found in newspapers published by non-geographers. It became the standard map projection for most applications and is still cemented as the mental map of most westerners today.

Mercator Falls From Use

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

Though some major map companies with less than reputable credentials still produce some maps using the Mercator projection, these are widely dismissed. As Mercator maps were already spiraling into obsoletion, a historian attempted to speed up this process by presenting a new map.

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 their areas more accurately. The Peters projection map uses a rectangular coordinate system that shows parallel lines of latitude and longitude.

In reality, 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. In essence, the Peters projection was a response to a question that had already been answered.

Skilled at marketing, Arno claimed that his map displayed third world countries more subjectively than the popular but highly distorted Mercator projection map. While the Peters projection does (almost) represent land area accurately, all map projections distort the shape of the earth, a sphere. However, the Peters projection came to be seen as the lesser of two evils.

Peters Picks up Popularity

New believers in the Peters map were vociferous in demanding the use of this newer, better map. They insisted that organizations switch to the "fairer" map immediately. Even the United Nations Development Programme began using the Peters projection in its maps. But the popularity of the Peters Projection was likely due to a lack of knowledge about basic cartography, as this projection is still quite flawed. 

Today, relatively few use either the Peters or Mercator map, yet the evangelizing continues. 

Trouble for Both Maps

Peters only chose to compare his strange-looking map to the Mercator map because he knew that the latter was an inappropriate representation of the earth, but so was his. All claims made by advocates for the Peters projection about Mercator distortion are correct, though one map being less wrong than the other doesn't make either map "right".

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, including the Mercator and Peters projections. 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. In 1988, they switched to the Robinson projection, on which high latitudes are less distorted in size than in shape in an attempt to more accurately capture the three-dimensional shape of the earth in a two-dimensional figure.

Finally, in 1998, the Society began using the Winkel Tripel projection, which features an even better balance between size and shape than the Robinson projection.

Compromise projections like the Robinson and Winkel Tripel are far superior to their predecessors because they present the world as globe-like, making them worthy of support from almost all geographers. These are the projections that you are most likely to see today.