The True Size of Africa

I'm no cartographer, so I can't comment on its accuracy—but this alternative visualization of the size of the African continent compared to various world nations is thought-provoking. No, Africa's not a country, but it's interesting to compare the land mass to countries perceived as more powerful.

As BB commenter jetfx notes, "A pity the creator of this image doesn't list what projection he used, because without knowing that, we don't know what hidden distortions are in his map."

Greg Osuri, via Treehugger. You can download a hi-rez version here.

(thanks Chris Tackett, via BB Submitterator)

Update: Looks like Osuri spent some time carefully calculating total land mass, so the image here seems visually representative. Some thoughtful Boing Boing comments below.


  1. I’m a cartographer, so I’ll give it the seal of approval. It looks to be an accurate equal-area comparison.

    1. I agree, Mercator projection. I think he started with the Mercator-projected shape of each country, then scaled the size of each individual polygon based on its real-world area.

    2. Peters projection is pretty awful for representing shapes. The Mercator projection has an additional benefit (when not used for global maps): it is conformal; that is, it locally preserves shape. For small areas, it’s great, especially if you use transverse Mercator. For a continental scale, Lambert would arguably be better, but Peters would give you very distorted shapes (in return for preserving area).

  2. If you look at the source, he gives the square kilometer area of each of the countries and then compares it to the square kilometer area of the continent of Africa.

    Africa is actually about 100,000 km^2 larger than all those countries put together.

    1. Interesting to juxtapose population with this view of land mass. Africa’s population is between 925 million and 1 billion. India’s population is over 1.1 billion. That helps paint a picture of population density. Debbie Hall

  3. Numbers from Wikipedia:

    Europe: 10.2M square km
    China: 9.6M square km
    US (w/o Alaska): 8.1M square km
    India: 3.3M square km

    total: 31.2M square km

    Africa: 30.2M square km

    So I think it adds up pretty nicely, though perhaps Japan is going a bit overboard.

  4. I call shenanigans. Look how much of eastern Europe is tucked under India. And a whole section of southeastern China is just dangling out! How sloppy! The real question is, who screwed around with my game of Risk?

    1. Clearly you didn’t watch ‘The West Wing’

      There’s a problem with many people’s understanding of the shape of the continents which is down to the use of the Mercator Projection on most non-specialised maps. With Mercator the area near the poles is greatly exaggerated, so an island like Greenland (2.2 million km2) appears not much smaller than Africa (30.2 million km2), Russia which is so dominant on the map is actually only alittle over half the size of Africa and so on.

      Mercator is a great way of drawing a map if you want to sail a ship between two ports as it maintains bearings, but it is a pretty lousy way of showing the shape of the world. Obviously there’s no such thing as a perfect projection, but we could do a lot better when learning about the place we live on.

    2. It’s trying to show that the land area of Africa the continent is so big that it can hold those countries’ areas within it.

  5. travis08, the point of this map is to illustrate the sheer size of the African continent through the use of easily-understood examples.

    If it was to compare continent-to-continent, it would be meaningless. It would be like “This asteroid is the size of an asteroid!” instead of “This asteroid is the size of a volkswagen beetle!”.

  6. Here’s a clip from “The West Wing” where they dramatize the implications of the Peters projection.

    You are commanded to enjoy!

    1. @JamesMason — I had forgotten that West Wing clip. Awesome stuff. Thanks for the link/reminder.

      Such a great show…

  7. Beryllium, I have to disagree. Your statement might be valid if people had a common conception of the size of asteroids. Chances are people have as little of an idea of the size of Africa, as they do about the size of most of these countries. It would be better to say that Africa is 71 times the size of California, for someone from or familiar with California. Your argument is like saying the asteroid is about the size of Pluto’s sister-body Charon; chances are the person will have no idea. I don’t see how this map provides very much information aside from “hey look how many densely populated countries I could fit into Africa”

    1. If people don’t have some idea of the size of these countries, they are so ignorant that no map of any sort is going to be useful to them.

      It works fine for the majority of English-speaking college graduates, I’d imagine. My pre-teen kids would certainly understand it. Who do you think it should reach that it’s not reaching?

      1. Well if you can understand the size of these countries, how in the hell can you not understand the size of Africa. Sorry, but if you are in that situation then you’re more of an idiot than I thought

    2. It’s just a visualization.

      A true continent-to-continent comparison, such as saying that “Africa is approximately 60 times bigger than Central America” would be like saying “Eros is approximately 50 times the size of Apophis”.

      What I’m trying to suggest is that this visualization simply has a slightly higher chance of comprehension than would a continent-to-continent comparison, by visually translating the format into another type of measurement.

      1. I agree, I’m just saying that the intention is lost and comes off as pointless. From what I understand, the creator is trying to show the importance of Africa. This is lost because if I only have a comprehension of the size of a couple of these countries, the true understanding gets distorted by ‘pretty colors’. Therefore, If I don’t understand the size of Africa already, I probably won’t get the point of the message because I probably don’t grasp the size of these countries. Hence the creation, in my mind, is pointless because the people that understand it already do, and the people that don’t, probably won’t because it doesn’t relate to them personally.

    3. I disagree somewhat. As someone who has driven across the U.S., I have a concept of its size. Most people haven’t done so, but not everyone is from California, so short of making a different projection featuring every state, province, country, etc. imaginable, there’s no way to make this map personally relevant to the majority of people in the way you suggested.

  8. my issue with this is that it reinforces the common misconception that africa is a country, and therefore should be compared to other countries. it’s interesting, though.

  9. Ironically, the map tends to perpetuate a different sort of “immappancy” – the mistaken idea that Africa is a single country – by comparing an entire continent, made up of many countries, to a selection of individual countries.

    But of course, comparing continents to continents wouldn’t have been quite so “thought-provoking”, I suspect. Africa is smaller than, say, North America and Australia combined. Or North America and Antarctica. Or North America and Europe. And it’s only about two-thirds the size of Asia (even when we maintain the traditional but geophysically dubious division of the Eurasian land mass into ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’).

    But I suppose those comparisons aren’t likely to provoke the same sort of thoughts.

    1. “by comparing an entire continent, made up of many countries, to a selection of individual countries”

      I didn’t know eastern europe was an individual country. The UK is a bit schizophrenic on that definition though.

  10. OK, now overlay a map of the moon (the WHOLE Moon).
    At 37.8M km its just slightly larger than Africa. Usless info, but a fun fact.

    Samsam von Virginia

  11. I had been thinking of starting a campaign to get Canada to rename itself “Whattalottaland”; but now I think maybe Africa really deserves that name.

    Since there are 47+ countries in Africa, I’m happy to see that they’ve room for them all.

    1. I think if anyone deserves the name, it’s Asia. Or maybe Venus, which doesn’t waste a lot of space on oceans.

  12. What an amazing map and quasi-jigsaw-puzzle!

    But where’s Alaska? It looks like it’s part of the US land area in the table, but the jigsaw puzzle only shows the Middle 48 States. (Hawaii, VI, Guam, etc. are small change, but Alaska’s something like 1/3 of the surface area of the Middle 48.)

    Also, I had to look at the map of China from a couple of different rotations to see what was China Part 1 and China Part 2, and it looks like China Part 1 includes Tibet as well as China itself.

  13. I find it really interesting that he used a Mercator projection, and then had to manually re-size each country based on its actual dimensions, instead of just using Peter’s.

    To me it’s extremely ironic: in showing people’s lack on knowledge of size, he’s showing his lack of knowledge of the Peter’s projection, which already has everything sized correctly.

    Basically: Peter’s projection should probably be taught more.

  14. 800 lb. gorilla. This map is only interesting insofar that it twangs a chord of white guilt over exploiting Africa.

    I love guilt-porn and blaxploitation shlock.

    How can I baw better about Afghanistan through creative cartography? Got any links, bb folks?

      1. The map is missing the 17% of the United States known as Alaska.

        Of course it is.

        You can’t see Russia from Africa.

  15. I’m surprised no one has remarked that the map was apparently created by Kai Krause, of Kai’s Power Tools and Goo fame, who hasn’t been heard of much since retiring to his castle and mountains of money in the 90’s.

  16. How ironic it is to see the Californian coast paired with the Western Africa one. Some of the world’s poorest countries – Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia – paired with one of the richest economies (even if the US is in recession and China is emerging and etc.)

  17. It’s what we called Eastern Europe during the Cold War – plus Greece.

    And there’s all of Ireland marked as “UK”, which does undermine confidence in the geographic acumen of the composer. Especially as the actual UK would have been a better fit.

    It is an interesting exercise I suppose, but who are all these people who think that Africa is “a country”? Even if many are unclear about what constitutes a country or a continent, I think they are generally aware that Africa is a vast and diverse place.

  18. So, the real lesson of this map is … never get involved in a land war in Africa.

    It would be absolutely, totally, and in all other ways inconceivable.

  19. Yet it was still too small for our species – and it became so, so very long ago.

    Canada loves Africa. So much so, that some of us sing about it.

    And here’s a song, complete with a kazoo solo, to prove that:

    Beautiful land.

    1. Canada already has one France stuck in it, and believe me, keeping Quebec stuck there takes a lot of work. There’s only room for 13 more Frances, but don’t tell Alberta – they’d be pissed.

      1. Oui, c’est vrai…but we were at least lucky enough to get the France that did NOT have a Revolution.

  20. Interesting to hear so many people name-dropping the Peters projection.

    The Peters projection is popular with folks who have enough interest in cartography to have heard the elevator pitch for Peters, but not enough to have discovered that it’s not actually a particularly good projection, as equal-area projections go.

    On the plus side, it’s at least makes for a better reference map than Transverse Mercator, which still seems to be the default projection for some reason. And it got the topic of cartography onto the West Wing. Which is cool, even if they got it factually wrong.

    1. Hugh– if Peters isn’t a great equal area projection, can you suggest some that are? This is all new to me, and I’m fascinated.

  21. Wow. This was an awakening in more ways than one. Now I am aware of the socio-political ramifications of cartography.

  22. Seriously, are there still some grown ups here thinking that Africa is a country? I can’t even beleive there’s a misconception !
    Its as dumb as thinking that Europe or America (CONTINENT, for those who don’t make the difference) are countries.
    Seriously,just pick up a regular world map and look at it for one minute, one freaking minute, and you’ll notice that Africa is huge.No need to play puzzles for that.

    1. Seriously, are there still some grown ups here thinking that Africa is a country?

      I must have missed a comment somewhere. Who said that?

  23. I don’t have a good sense of China’s scale. In order for this to be meaningful for me, I would need another graphic showing how many Italies China is.

  24. Nobody did. It’s a common variation on the standard passive-aggresive technique of being upset on behalf of someone else. It’s being stupid on someone else’s behalf.

  25. If you want a picture of a single country, a Mercator projection works just fine. You just have to center it on the country in question instead of the equator, and only maybe one or two will be big enough to show much distortion.

    The Peter projection is annoyingly distorting. If you care that much about equal areas, just don’t use a rectangle.

  26. the thing that bugs me is the Eastern Europe thing..
    I can see that is the Czech republic is sticking out of it. The Czechs consider themselves part of Central Europe being smack dab in the middle of the continent. Btw you would not say Austria is Eastern Europe and yet is slightly east of the Czech Republic.


  27. For those listing the exclusions: It’s not supposed to contain every European country.

    I’d like to see a similar map that takes into account the arable land of each country.

  28. At first glance I thought this was some subtle jab at the fact that these countries have invested themselves in Africa, for example China gets a lot of its raw material from AFrica. And notice how Spain is up near Morocco, and Italy resides over lower Egypt and Ethiopia. I’m reading way too much into this.

  29. I must respond in some meaningful way to comments that suggest that Africa is regarded with much respect. Most Americans (not just white Americans) think of Africa as just one place. These are the same people (Americans) that regard Black people as a single ‘race’. Both of these ideas are absolutely ridiculous, but universally accepted. Africa is a bunch of places on the same land mass. Race really doesn’t even exist, and Africa is as ethnically diverse as any other continent. No one cares. We just like to think of faraway things as simply as possible, and to hold on o the idea of race because it makes us comfortable. This map illustrates in one way the true diversity of the African continent simply by demonstrating its land mass. An ambitious project would be to map the African coastline relative to historical events which happened there, from Egypt to South Africa, and to show people that Africa is not just one place, ethnically, culturally, or even racially. (Really, people think it’s just one place..)

  30. There was great concern in the McCain campaign that Sarah Palin lacked the degree of knowledgeability necessary to be a running mate, a vice-president, and a heartbeat away from the presidency.


    We’re told that she didn’t understand that Africa was a continent rather than a, uh, a series… uh, a country just in itself – a whole host of questions that caused serious problems about her knowledgeability.

    –Fox News reporter Carl Cameron, speaking to Fox News Reporter Shepard Smith

    Watch the clip on YouTube

  31. I’m horribly disappointed that no-one yet as even mentioned the fact that Australia is missing, with and area of 7.69 million square kilometres (according to the Govt) how are we overlooked so often.

  32. Er… what’s the story with Ireland? It’s shoved in all funny and just labeled UK. I thought one of the points of this was to educate people about geography! Ok, some of Ireland (like 1/5), is still part of the UK, but not all. And there’s plenty of space in the north west portion of the map to shove in the remainder

    Australia was overlooked cos it’s too big! Which would have totally undermined the other point the map was trying to make. Ditto for Canada, and Alaska.

    I still like it though…

  33. Why are there so many comments about “missing countries”? Of course not every country in the world can fit in Africa!!

    I do love the new location of the UK!

  34. OK, folks, let’s kick this up to another level . . .

    According to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, the reason Europeans were able to conquer Africans & other peoples is that they (Euros) benefited from a large horizontal landmass (Eurasia) that allowed the invention & spread of agricultural empires, which allowed the technical advances that lead to steel & guns, plus lead to Europeans being exposed to various plagues, which they developed immunities to. Africa is a large vertical landmass, which made the spread of agriculture & technology impossible. Which leads to the doggerel:

    “Whatever happens we have got
    The Maxim Gun, and they have not”

  35. This is really misleading.. As vast majorities of the US and China are inhabitable, there are huge portions of Africa that could never support human life.

  36. Interesting, but if you look at a globe (no projection distortion) you see that the UK is only half the size of Madagascar – rather than the same size as shown. So looks like a Mercator projection was used with its north/south size distortions. Too bad, as without this the comparison is even more dramatic

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