Teaching Students About Mercator Projection: Discovering a World of Distortions
The Mercator projection, developed by Gerardus Mercator in 1569, is an essential tool that has shaped cartography for generations. As educators, it is vital to teach students about this map projection and help them understand its pros and cons. The goal of this article is to provide educators with comprehensive guidance on how to teach students about the Mercator projection, including its benefits and its distortions.
Background on the Mercator Projection
The principal reason behind the creation of the Mercator projection was to aid navigation during the Age of Exploration. Mariners needed a way to represent lines of constant compass bearing (called rhumb lines) as straight lines on maps to navigate at sea easily. The Mercator map allowed sailors to plot their courses using straight lines without having to continuously adjust their compasses.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Mercator Projection
The strengths of the Mercator projection lie mainly in its navigational value and ease of use. Apart from making rhumb lines easy to trace, it provides an accurate representation of shape and direction.
However, there are several weaknesses linked to this map projection:
1. Distortion of size: This is perhaps the most infamous characteristic of the Mercator projection. Landmasses increase in size as they move toward Earth’s poles, causing an immense distortion that makes countries like Greenland look disproportionately larger in comparison with countries closer to Earth’s equator.
2. Misrepresentation of continent positions: In a world map based on the Mercator projection, continents near the equatorial region seem smaller and farther apart than they are in reality.
3. Limited portrayal of polar regions: The distortion caused by the Mercator projection means that Antarctica basically seems like an endless stretch at the bottom edge when represented on this map.
Here are some strategies educators can use when teaching students about the Mercator projection:
1. Provide historical context: Discuss the birth of the Mercator projection and its importance during the Age of Exploration. Present visuals of some early mapmakers’ works to empower students to understand better how the process of mapmaking has evolved throughout history.
2. Demonstrate distortions using online tools: Utilize various online applications (such as Google Earth or The True Size) to compare the size and position of countries and continents as they appear on the Mercator projection with their actual dimensions.
3. Encourage critical thinking by comparing projections: Analyze a variety of map projections alongside the Mercator projection, pointing out their strengths, weaknesses, and suitability for specific purposes. This exercise will allow students to grasp why choosing an appropriate map projection is crucial in cartography.
4. Hands-on activities: Organize fun, engaging activities that involve elements of map projection, like creating paper globes or implementing games where students match countries’ sizes to their locations on a Mercator map.
5. Incorporate real-world examples: Discuss modern-day implications of relying on distorted maps, such as influencing political decision-making on global issues (e.g., climate change or international negotiations).
Teaching students about the Mercator projection is essential for fostering a deep understanding of cartography and improving geographic literacy. By implementing these educational strategies, students will appreciate the complexities involved in creating maps and be more inclined to consider various perspectives when engaging in discussions about our world’s geography.