Visualizing the True Size of Africa

The True Size of Africa Map

Mapped: The True Size of Africa

Take a look at any map, and it’s clear that the African continent is a big place.

However, despite the common perception that Africa is a large landmass, it’s still one that is vastly underestimated by most casual map viewers.

The reason for this is that the familiar Mercator map projection tends to distort our geographical view of the world in a crucial way — one that often leads to misconceptions about the relative sizes of both countries and continents.

A Geographical Jigsaw

Today’s infographic comes from Kai Krause and it shows the true size of Africa, as revealed by the borders of the countries that can fit within the continent’s shape.

The African continent has a land area of 30.37 million sq km (11.7 million sq mi) — enough to fit in the U.S., China, India, Japan, Mexico, and many European nations, combined.

Country Land Area (sq. km) Land Area (sq. mi) % of Africa
Total 30.33 million sq. km 11.71 million sq. mi 99.9%
馃嚭馃嚫 United States 9.83 million 3.80 million 32.4%
馃嚚馃嚦 China 9.60 million 3.71 million 31.6%
馃嚠馃嚦 India 3.29 million 1.27 million 10.8%
馃嚥馃嚱 Mexico 1.96 million 0.76 million 6.5%
馃嚨馃嚜 Peru 1.29 million 0.50 million 4.2%
馃嚝馃嚪 France 0.64 million 0.25 million 2.1%
馃嚜馃嚫 Spain 0.51 million 0.20 million 1.7%
馃嚨馃嚞 Papua New Guinea 0.46 million 0.18 million 1.5%
馃嚫馃嚜 Sweden 0.45 million 0.17 million 1.5%
馃嚡馃嚨 Japan 0.38 million 0.15 million 1.3%
馃嚛馃嚜 Germany 0.36 million 0.14 million 1.2%
馃嚦馃嚧 Norway 0.32 million 0.13 million 1.1%
馃嚠馃嚬 Italy 0.30 million 0.12 million 1.0%
馃嚦馃嚳 New Zealand 0.27 million 0.10 million 0.9%
馃嚞馃嚙 United Kingdom 0.24 million 0.09 million 0.8%
馃嚦馃嚨 Nepal 0.15 million 0.06 million 0.5%
馃嚙馃嚛 Bangladesh 0.15 million 0.06 million 0.5%
馃嚞馃嚪 Greece 0.13 million 0.05 million 0.4%

 

You could add together all of the landmasses above and they would not equate to the geographical footprint of Africa, which itself is home to 54 countries and 1.2 billion people.

Editor’s note: The above table is slightly different from the countries shown in the visualization, which focuses more on fitting recognizable country shapes into the geographical shape of Africa.

Why the Misconception?

Interestingly, the problem with maps is not that Africa is sized incorrectly.

Using the animation below, you’ll see that Africa is actually the most accurately sized continent using the common Mercator map projection:

True size of countries animation Mercator

The Mercator projection attempts to place the spherical shape of the world onto a cylinder, causing areas closest to the poles to be “stretched”.

Africa, which straddles the Equator, barely changes in size — meanwhile, the countries furthest from the Equator become inflated from their true sizes on this type of map.

Mercator cylindrical projection

For those of us living in Western countries, this is an interesting dilemma to consider.

This means that the sizes of European and North American countries are distorted, giving us an inaccurate mental “measuring stick” for judging the relative sizes of other countries.

This has implications not only for Africa, but for the whole Southern Hemisphere: South America, India, the Middle East, and even Australia are “bigger” than they may initially appear on a map.