Fun With Maps

This Place Looks Like This Thing

Tunisia, why are you turning your nose up like that at poor Sicily? Who can you possibly think you're better than? You're where George Lucas was allowed to have a camera.

You remember that picture where if you looked at it one way it was a haggard old lady and if you looked at it the other way it was a beautiful woman? I just looked at the old lady face in Alaska upside down and it looked like an upside-down old lady.


Hurricane Names That Spell Trouble: An Unscientific Survey

On April 13th of this year, the name Irene was officially retired from the list of Atlantic Basin Hurricane names. In all, six Hurricane Irenes have raged around the Atlantic, but there won't be a seventh. The screenshot here, taken from NOAA’s Historical Hurricane Tracks (a complete timehole of an application) shows all of the past Atlantic Irenes.* Irene 1971 actually hopped across Nicaragua to become a Pacific storm, Hurricane Olivia, something that's happened only a handful of times in recorded meteorological history: Irene-Olivia was the first named storm to do so. Irene 1981 struck France. Then Irene 2011 rolled up the East Coast last summer. Clearly, [...]


The Maps We Wandered Into As Kids

If I ruled the world, or at least a publishing company, all books would contain as much supplementary information as possible. Nonfiction, fiction—doesn't matter. Every work would have an appendix filled with diagrams, background information, digressions and anecdata. And of course, maps. Lots and lots of maps. This predilection probably sprang from the books I read as a kid—books like The Phantom Tollbooth, The Hobbit and The Princesss Bride—all of which feature engaging maps that serve as gateways to imaginary lands. Here, say these maps, you're in this other world now.


A Scenic Tour Of Toxic Sites Across America

So we’ve all scanned Google Earth for the Indian ship-breaking beaches, or the rows of planes in aircraft boneyards, or the abandoned and overgrown town of Chernobyl. But toxic, garbage-y sites aren’t always limited to exotic, remote locales—sometimes they’re right past our backyards. Sometimes they’re even under our backyards.

Osborne Reef

In 1972, two million tires, clustered into groups with metal clips, were dumped into the ocean in a two birds/one stone attempt to clean up the landscape encourage natural reef growth. Instead, the well-intentioned ecologists created a 50-foot diameter dead zone a mile off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. Area marine life was forced [...]


How To Read This Morning's Weather Map

Here’s this morning’s weather map, straight from the Weather Channel website. What do we see? Well, it's going to be a purple line in California, typical for this time of year. Mountain West will see a lot of Hs—how nice for them! And the lumpy, blue-and-red line down the East Coast will stay for the remainder of the week into the weekend. Wait, what? Okay, so maybe when you look at a weather map you have a vague sense of what's being indicated. Like, "hmm, those green clouds look ominous." But how did they get there? And what's going on with those other lines, letters and bumps?


That Map's All Wrong For You

The infamous Grenada invasion of 1983 was, in addition to everything else that went wrong, hindered by a wildly out-of-date British map. The map predated the construction of the Richmond Hill Insane Asylum, and in the resulting air strikes the hospital was bombed and a number of patients and staff members killed.

Welcome to the world of cartographic errors, misjudgments and deceptions. Sometimes it's the map that's wrong—sometimes the blame lies with the map's reader. For example, back in 1988, the Philippine media announced that neighboring Malaysia had taken ownership of a group of six small islands in the south of the country. The Turtle Islands, small and [...]


Beyond Nemo: The Buffalo Weather Service's Odd, Delightful Way With Storm Names

A little backstory on how snow storm Nemo came to have a name: the practice of naming snow storms came out of the National Weather Service's Buffalo, NY office, where they've been doing it for years as a way of distinguishing between storms. Western New York gets multiple blizzards per year, so you can't just call them "The Blizzard of [Year]"* when there was probably more than one blizzard that year. It's the infamous Lake Effect; cold winds whip across the Midwest, pick up water vapor rising off of the warmer-by-comparison Lake Erie, and dump it as fluffy, snowball-perfect snow as soon as it hits land. Upstate gets so much [...]


How To Get Lost Less Often

No one's supposed to get lost these days. Smartphones have maps on them—and compasses, too. But phones have a way of losing their signals when you most need them, and then there are the times you simply can't figure out which street on a crowded map that flipping little blue dot is indicating. And then sometimes your phone dies, and who knew you can't bike through there, and oh god, the left pedal fell off—and suddenly you're meeting your boyfriend's family two hours late and covered in sweat because you took the long way around Arlington Cemetery. Hypothetically.

Or let's say, you just have a really, really lousy sense of [...]


Blame It On Volcanoes

Volcanoes! They're responsible for so many things, like pumice, the spontaneous combustion of Bobby Jindal's political career and that part of Disney's Fantasia right before everything gets terrifying. Some say the hellish orange sky in Edvard Munch's The Scream came courtesy of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. So what else can we blame on volcanoes?


A Survey Of Moon Maps Since the 17th Century

How do you map something 238,856 miles away? You can’t just send out a team of surveyors. At least, you couldn’t until relatively recently. Before then, lunar cartographers (technically, selenographers) could only rely on telescopes and their own artistic ability to draw a detailed portrait of the lunar face. They managed some pretty dazzling results.

One of the first widely seen images of the moon (aside from the IRL version), the drawing at left was included by Galileo in a book published in 1610. While he didn’t technically map the moon, these observations were among the first to take note that the moon was not a perfect smooth magic sky-ball [...]


I Object To Your Projections

Have you seen that episode of "The West Wing"? This is a Fun with Maps column, so you know which one I mean. The one where it's Big Block of Cheese Day, and CJ meets with the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality? If that's not ringing any bells, here's what happens: the organization is promoting an alternative to the Mercator projection, that is, the version of the world map with which you're probably most familiar—it's the one that has Greenland as roughly the same size as Africa. The group would prefer the Peters projection be used, because it doesn't exaggerate the size of Europe and North America at [...]


And They Named It Dodgy Island

Greenland is ice, Iceland is nice—and Carcass Island is full of penguins. In this installment, let's investigate some of the more suspicious-sounding islands out there and see whether they live up to their altogether uninviting toponyms.

Name: Deception Island Location: The South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula Does it live up to its name? Yes. Deception Island is a nearly perfect circle with a small inlet leading to a geothermal bay—a researcher from SUNY-Geneseo describes it as "a donut with a small bite taken out." The entrance is almost completely obscured; you can only find your way in if you know precisely where to go. Also, [...]


Thar Might Be Dragons… Or Thar Might Be Nothing At All

The recent "disappearance" of Sandy Island—a long-mapped island in the South Pacific that appears to have never existed—was a fresh reminder that, even with the most modern, state-of-the art, satellites-and-all technology at our disposal, we still may not actually know where everything is. Frankly, we never have—and we've made some pretty awful guesses over the years.

Though it's probably one of the most well-known cartography-related phrases, "Thar Be Dragons" has, as far as we know, only appeared on a single map. That map is the Hunt-Lenox Globe, currently in the New York Public Library's collection. The globe's origins are mysterious; no one knows where it came from or [...]


A Reading List For People Who Love Learning About The World

One of the great things about geography is that it sneaks into just about everything, including books. After all, everything happens somewhere, right? When it comes to describing places, though some books stand out because they find particularly unexpected and fascinating ways to describe how the world fits together. Here I've collected eight favorites. Some are more obvious choices than others, but all would fit neatly on the bookshelf of anyone with a flair for the geographic.


Pictures Of You From Space (With Bonus Quiz!)

Do you ever wonder how many pictures there are with you in the background? Like, the ones taken at crowded bars during other people's birthdays; or when you stroll through someone else's shot at a tourist attraction; or when you get good seats at a game? You're probably in the background of thousands upon thousands of photographs—and you're probably making a stupid face in every single one of them. On top of this, your picture also is being taken daily in ways you may not be aware of: from 400 miles above, by the satellites used to observe the earth. Lucky for your face, you're too small to appear, given [...]


Do You Know What Time It Is?

Chester A. Arthur gets a lot of flak. He deserves most of it. If you're president, you really shouldn't sell off wagonloads of priceless White House furniture at auction. But one accomplishment of Arthur's presidency that gets glossed over in favor of criticism of the “he owned eighty pairs of pants!” closet-shaming variety is that he convened the International Meridian Conference of 1884, with the goal of nailing down "exactly what time is it, anyway?" Although Arthur, I’m sure, put it in much more elegant terms.

The International Meridian Conference designated the Greenwich Meridian as the prime meridian for "time reckoning throughout the world" (it was already the [...]


I Don't Even Know Who You Are Anymore

A couple of years ago I came home from a hockey game completely hammered, fired up the ol' eBay and bid on a dozen outdated globes. I didn’t even remember that I'd done this until days later when my email dinged with a notice that I'd been outbid on one of them. Over the span of a week there were ten more notices as I was thankfully outbid again and again. What would I have done with a dozen globes? Where would I have put them all? Would I have had to move into a middle-school library? In the end I won just one of them, a 12" [...]


Gerrymandered, U.S.A.

In the last Fun With Maps, we talked about a Pennsylvania congressman drawn out of his own district by mere yards. Though that's a particularly targeted example of gerrymandering, it's certainly not the most egregious. Let's look at some of the most rigged.

The Horseshoe: IL-04

To create a Hispanic-majority district in the Chicagoland suburbs, the state of Illinois combined a Puerto Rican neighborhood with a distant Mexican neighborhood via a nonresidential strip of Interstate 294. The problem? The highway is eight miles west of either enclave.