Debunking Map Myths: Is Greenland Really Bigger than South America?

Ever looked at a world map and pondered over the size of Greenland compared to South America? It’s a question that’s likely puzzled you at some point. Well, you’re not alone. The perception of size on traditional maps can often lead to misconceptions.

You might’ve thought that Greenland, with its sprawling icy expanse, was larger than the vibrant continent of South America. It’s a common mistake, thanks to the distortion effect of the Mercator map projection. But, is it really the case? Let’s dive deeper and debunk some geographical myths.

In this article, we’re going to unpack the truth about the sizes of Greenland and South America. We’ll explore the facts, delve into the reasons behind the common misperception, and finally answer the burning question: Is Greenland really bigger than South America?

Key Takeaways

  • Greenland, at 2,166,086 square kilometers, is significantly smaller than South America, which spans a massive 17,840,000 square kilometers. Despite visual representations on certain maps, South America is about eight times larger than Greenland.
  • The size distortion on world maps is mainly due to the Mercator projection, which causes an exaggerated representation of landmasses close to the poles. As a result, Greenland appears larger than it is, especially compared to landmasses near the equator like South America.
  • The Mercator map projection, designed by Gerardus Mercator in 1569, serves as a significant navigation tool because it preserves angles and directions. Despite its distortion of relative sizes, it remains widely used due to its angular fidelity, essential for plotting a straight course in navigation.
  • The Mercator map and other projection methods inevitably cause some distortion because they try to represent a three-dimensional Earth on a flat, two-dimensional surface. Each map projection has its strengths and weaknesses, and none can perfectly represent our spherical world.
  • Viewing maps bearing in mind the concept of map projection can lead to a more accurate understanding of the sizes of different geographical regions. While examining any world map, remember that sizes don’t always reflect the reality due to the distortion inherent in map projections.
  • Other projection methods, like the Gall–Peters projection, minimize the size distortion prevalent in the Mercator projection. These alternative projections strive to represent the relative sizes of continents more accurately, promoting a more informed global perspective.

The perception of Greenland’s size compared to South America has long been distorted by common map projections. Geography enthusiasts can uncover the truth about map distortions and their impact on our understanding of the world at National Geographic, which offers insights into more accurate ways to view our planet. The Guardian addresses the Mercator projection’s role in these misconceptions, providing an informative read on the topic. Further exploration of alternative map projections that offer a more accurate representation of landmasses can be found on Visual Capitalist, where readers can visually grasp the true scale of the world’s geography.

Unpacking the Sizes of Greenland and South America

We’ll first focus on Greenland. It’s an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. According to official statistics, Greenland spans an impressive 2,166,086 square kilometers. Now, that’s a massive area!

Yet, when you turn your gaze towards the South American continent, something astonishing becomes evident. South America, captained by 12 independent nations, comes in at a startling 17,840,000 square kilometers. The scale difference is no small matter.

ContinentArea (square kilometers)
South America17,840,000

Why, then, could there be a perception that Greenland is larger? It’s due to the distortion caused by the Mercator map projection method. Used widely in creating maps of the world, this method amplifies the size of land near the poles.

Let’s delve a little deeper into this distortion. Near the equator, where South America is situated, this magnification is minimum. But as you travel northwards or southwards towards the poles, this effect escalates. That is why Greenland, situated up north, seems much larger in maps than its actual size.

Now you know that South America’s size is around eight times larger than that of Greenland. Hopefully, the next time you come across a traditional map, you’ll reminisce about the Mercator projection’s distortion effect and perceive the areas accurately.

The Mercator Map Projection Distortion

You might ask yourself, “why does Greenland seem bigger than South America on many world maps?” The answer lies in a concept called the Mercator map projection. Devised by Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569, it’s a method that transforms the spherical, three-dimensional Earth into a flat, two-dimensional map.

The Mercator map became a significant tool for navigation because it preserves angles and directions. Imagine you’re a sailor and you have to maintain a fixed compass direction. The Mercator projection lets you plot a straight line course, making navigation quite straightforward.

Yet, the very strength of the Mercator map becomes its downfall when representing the Earth in a geographically accurate manner. Landmasses close to the poles, like Greenland, are grossly exaggerated compared to those near the equator, such as South America. This distortion confuses our perception, making us think that Greenland is much larger than it actually is.

To grasp the magnitude of this distortion, consider this: South America is actually about eight times larger than Greenland. Yet, on Mercator maps, Greenland appears to be the same size or even bigger. Below is a breakdown of their geographic sizes for comparison:

AreaSize (Square Kilometers)
South America17,840,000

Many map enthusiasts criticize the Mercator projection for creating a visual hierarchy favoring the Global North. At the same time, experts praise it for aiding early global navigation. Overall, it’s crucial to understand that no two-dimensional map can perfectly represent the three-dimensional world.

This distortion isn’t specific to the Mercator map alone. Other map projections have distortions too, but of different types or extents. For instance, the Gall–Peters projection distorts shapes but preserves relative sizes. There’s no perfect map projection – each has its strengths and weaknesses depending on its purpose.

In the end, it’s all about perspective and lens. Take a look at the world map from various viewing platforms, learn the merits and demerits of each projection, but most importantly, remember that sizes on the map don’t always reflect reality.

Why Greenland Appears Larger Than South America

When you glance at a typical Mercator map, you might think Greenland is enormous, perhaps even larger than South America. This perception is due to a type of distortion inherent to this map. The Mercator map projection originated in the 16th century for sailors navigating the globe.

Its defining characteristic is to maintain accurate angles for navigation, making it a go-to map for many sailors. But this preservation of angles comes at a cost; specifically, the distortion of landmasses near the poles, such as Greenland. Mercator maps inflate the sizes of these landmasses, leading to common misconceptions about their real proportions. On a Mercator projection, Greenland appears almost the same size as Africa, a continent it’s actually 14 times smaller than.

With this map projection, Greenland’s size balloons to mimic that of South America, a continent approximately eight times larger. This distortion inadvertently misrepresents the accurate spatial ratios.

To illustrate this discrepancy, consider the actual landmass sizes. Greenland spans a respectable 2.16 million square kilometers. But South America? It’s a whopping 17.84 million square kilometers.

ContinentArea (million sq km)
South America17.84

It’s important to consider these figures when examining a standard Mercator map. Despite the visual distortion, they reflect the actual sizes of these landmasses.

It’s also helpful to know about alternative map projections, like the Peters, that aim to represent size and area accurately. Though, keep in mind, every map projection will distort reality in some way because we’re trying to represent a spherical world on a flat surface. The key is understanding these distortions for a more informed worldview.

As you dive further into the fascinating topic of cartography, always keep this simple truth in mind: cartographic representation isn’t perfect, but it’s a helpful tool to understand our vast, diverse world.

Revealing the True Sizes

Have you ever looked at a Mercator map and been shocked to see Greenland towering over South America? It’s a common misunderstanding. The reality, however, is far from this visual portrayal.

Let’s delve into the true sizes of these landmasses. Greenland only has a surface area of around 2,166,086 square kilometers. This might sound substantial, but when you compare this with South America’s vast expanse, the difference is staggering. South America is nearly 17,819,100 square kilometers. To put it into perspective, you could fit Greenland into South America about eight times!

Here’s a concise representation of the data:

ContinentSurface Area (square kilometers)
South America17,819,100

It’s this immense difference in physical size that makes the Mercator projection’s distortion so profound. The closer regions are to the poles, the larger they look. That’s why Greenland, which is closer to the North pole, looks disproportionately larger on a Mercator map.

It’s imperative for you to remember that the fault doesn’t lie with the map. It’s simply the result of trying to present a spherical earth on a flat surface. Various other map projections – such as the Gall-Peters projection, the Mollweide projection and the Goode’s Homolosine projection – attempt to rectify this distortion. They strive to represent the sizes of continents more accurately.

These alternative projections may not be perfect, but they sure can help set the record straight when it comes to the sizes of different landmasses. So next time, when you examine a world map, remember these facts. Keep in mind the true sizes and the projection’s influence on your perception. This knowledge will help you better understand our diverse world.


So, you’ve seen how map distortions can skew our perception of geographical size. Greenland isn’t as large as it appears on Mercator maps. In fact, it’s significantly smaller than South America. The challenge of representing a spherical Earth on a flat surface can lead to these misconceptions. Yet alternatives like the Gall-Peters, Mollweide, and Goode’s Homolosine projections offer a more accurate depiction. They’re not perfect but they do help us understand global proportions better. So next time you’re examining a map, remember to consider these distortions. It’s crucial to our understanding of the world.

Why does Greenland appear larger on Mercator maps?

Mercator maps tend to distort sizes of regions closer to the poles, making them appear larger. This is because Mercator maps represent the spherical Earth on a flat surface, causing this distortion.

How large is Greenland according to the article?

Greenland has a surface area of 2,166,086 square kilometers which is significantly smaller compared to how it appears on Mercator maps.

How does Greenland’s size compare to South America’s?

South America is substantially larger than Greenland. Its surface area is 17,819,100 square kilometers, approximately eight times larger than Greenland.

What are the alternative map projections mentioned in the article?

The article introduces alternative map projections such as the Gall-Peters, Mollweide, and Goode’s Homolosine projections. These alternatives aim to depict global proportions more accurately.

Do the alternative map projections present a perfect representation?

While these alternative map projections aim to provide more accurate representations of the continents’ sizes, they are not entirely without flaws. They, however, offer a better understanding of global proportions than the Mercator map.

Why is it important to consider map distortions?

Map distortions can lead to a misinterpretation of geographical information. Considering these distortions is important for a true understanding of relative sizes and distances of nations and continents.