Monday, December 30, 2019

The Mercator Map of the Arctic

I predict that in 2020 we are going to see a lot of maps of the Arctic. It seems almost certain that the worsening global climate crisis will lead to an abundance of new maps visualizing the increasing loss of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. It seems somehow appropriate then to end 2019 with an interactive version of the world's oldest separately printed map of the Arctic region.

Gerard Mercator's Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio is map of the Arctic, which was first published in 1595. Mercator's 1595 View of the Arctic is an annotated interactive presentation of the original map.

Mercator's map of the Arctic is not entirely accurate. It was plotted using contemporary discoveries but also uses myths and hearsay to fill in the gaps in real knowledge. For example the map shows the location of a race of "Pygmies, at most 4 feet tall", living in the Arctic. The map also seems to rely heavily on Inventio Fortunata, the travelogue of a Franciscan friar, which described the North Pole as a magnetic island surrounded by a giant whirlpool.

The map also includes the location of a very northerly California and, in one of the map's roundels, a depiction of the phantom island of Frisland.

The American Geophysical Union has released a much more modern map of the Arctic. Their new time-lapse video shows the extent of ocean ice in the Arctic over the past 35 years.

The video shows the age of Arctic sea ice between 1984 and 2019. It provides a stark visualization of the effects of global heating on sea ice in the Arctic region. Be prepared to see many more maps like this in the coming decade.

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