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A map projection is a systematic transformation of the latitudes and longitudes of locations on the surface of a sphere or an ellipsoid into locations on a plane. Map projections are necessary for creating maps. All map projections distort the surface in some fashion. Depending on the purpose of the map, some distortions are acceptable and others are not; therefore different map projections exist in order to preserve some properties of the sphere-like body at the expense of other properties. There is no limit to the number of possible map projections.
More generally, the surfaces of planetary bodies can be mapped even if they are too irregular to be modeled well with a sphere or ellipsoid. Even more generally, projections are the subject of several pure mathematical fields, including differential geometry and projective geometry. However "map projection" refers specifically to a cartographic projection.
Maps can be more useful than globes in many situations: they are more compact and easier to store; they readily accommodate an enormous range of scales; they are viewed easily on computer displays; they can facilitate measuring properties of the terrain being mapped; they can show larger portions of the Earth's surface at once; and they are cheaper to produce and transport. These useful traits of maps motivate the development of map projections.
However, Carl Friedrich Gauss's Theorema Egregium proved that a sphere's surface cannot be represented on a plane without distortion. The same applies to other reference surfaces used as models for the Earth. Since any map projection is a representation of one of those surfaces on a plane, all map projections distort. Every distinct map projection distorts in a distinct way. The study of map projections is the characterization of these distortions.
Projection is not limited to perspective projections, such as those resulting from casting a shadow on a screen, or the rectilinear image produced by a pinhole camera on a flat film plate. Rather, any mathematical function transforming coordinates from the curved surface to the plane is a projection. Few projections in actual use are perspective.
For simplicity most of this article assumes that the surface to be mapped is that of a sphere. In reality, the Earth and other large celestial bodies are generally better modeled as oblate spheroids, whereas small objects such as asteroids often have irregular shapes. These other surfaces can be mapped as well. Therefore, more generally, a map projection is any method of "flattening" into a plane a continuous curved surface.
Many properties can be measured on the Earth's surface independently of its geography. Some of these properties are:
Map projections can be constructed to preserve one or more of these properties, though not all of them simultaneously. Each projection preserves or compromises or approximates basic metric properties in different ways. The purpose of the map determines which projection should form the base for the map. Because many purposes exist for maps, many projections have been created to suit those purposes.
Another consideration in the configuration of a projection is its compatibility with data sets to be used on the map. Data sets are geographic information; their collection depends on the chosen datum (model) of the Earth. Different datums assign slightly different coordinates to the same location, so in large scale maps, such as those from national mapping systems, it is important to match the datum to the projection. The slight differences in coordinate assignation between different datums is not a concern for world maps or other vast territories, where such differences get shrunk to imperceptibility.
The mathematics of projection do not permit any particular map projection to be "best" for everything. Something will always get distorted. Therefore a diversity of projections exists to service the many uses of maps and their vast range of scales.
Modern national mapping systems typically employ a transverse Mercator or close variant for large-scale maps in order to preserve conformality and low variation in scale over small areas. For smaller-scale maps, such as those spanning continents or the entire world, many projections are in common use according to their fitness for the purpose.
Thematic maps normally require an equal area projection so that phenomena per unit area are shown in correct proportion. However, representing area ratios correctly necessarily distorts shapes more than many maps that are not equal-area. Hence reference maps of the world often appear on compromise projections instead. Due to the severe distortions inherent in any map of the world, within reason the choice of projection becomes largely one of æsthetics.
The Mercator projection, developed for navigational purposes, has often been used in world maps where other projections would have been more appropriate. This problem has long been recognized even outside professional circles. For example a 1943 New York Times editorial states:
The time has come to discard [the Mercator] for something that represents the continents and directions less deceptively... Although its usage... has diminished... it is still highly popular as a wall map apparently in part because, as a rectangular map, it fills a rectangular wall space with more map, and clearly because its familiarity breeds more popularity.
A controversy in the 1980s over the Peters map motivated the American Cartographic Association (now Cartography and Geographic Information Society) to produce a series of booklets (including Which Map is Best) designed to educate the public about map projections and distortion in maps. In 1989 and 1990, after some internal debate, seven North American geographic organizations adopted a resolution recommending against using any rectangular projection (including Mercator and Gall–Peters) for reference maps of the world.
The classic way of showing the distortion inherent in a projection is to use Tissot's indicatrix. Nicolas Tissot noted that for cylindrical projections the scale factors at a point, specified by the numbers h and k, define an ellipse at that point of the projection. The axes of the ellipse are aligned to the meridians and parallels. For the Mercator projection, h=k, so the ellipses degenerate into circles with radius proportional to the value of the scale factor for that latitude. These circles are then placed on the projected map with an arbitrary overall scale (because of the extreme variation in scale) but correct relative sizes.
The creation of a map projection involves two steps:
Some of the simplest map projections are literally projections, as obtained by placing a light source at some definite point relative to the globe and projecting its features onto a specified surface. This is not the case for most projections, which are defined only in terms of mathematical formulae that have no direct geometric interpretation.
A surface that can be unfolded or unrolled into a plane or sheet without stretching, tearing or shrinking is called a developable surface. The cylinder, cone and the plane are all developable surfaces. The sphere and ellipsoid do not have developable surfaces, so any projection of them onto a plane will have to distort the image. (To compare, one cannot flatten an orange peel without tearing and warping it.)
One way of describing a projection is first to project from the Earth's surface to a developable surface such as a cylinder or cone, and then to unroll the surface into a plane. While the first step inevitably distorts some properties of the globe, the developable surface can then be unfolded without further distortion.
Once a choice is made between projecting onto a cylinder, cone, or plane, the aspect of the shape must be specified. The aspect describes how the developable surface is placed relative to the globe: it may be normal (such that the surface's axis of symmetry coincides with the Earth's axis), transverse (at right angles to the Earth's axis) or oblique (any angle in between). The developable surface may also be either tangent or secant to the sphere or ellipsoid. Tangent means the surface touches but does not slice through the globe; secant means the surface does slice through the globe. Moving the developable surface away from contact with the globe never preserves or optimizes metric properties, so that possibility is not discussed further here.
A globe is the only way to represent the earth with constant scale throughout the entire map in all directions. A map cannot achieve that property for any area, no matter how small. It can, however, achieve constant scale along specific lines.
Some possible properties are:
Projection construction is also affected by how the shape of the Earth is approximated. In the following section on projection categories, the earth is taken as a sphere in order to simplify the discussion. However, the Earth's actual shape is closer to an oblate ellipsoid. Whether spherical or ellipsoidal, the principles discussed hold without loss of generality.
Selecting a model for a shape of the Earth involves choosing between the advantages and disadvantages of a sphere versus an ellipsoid. Spherical models are useful for small-scale maps such as world atlases and globes, since the error at that scale is not usually noticeable or important enough to justify using the more complicated ellipsoid. The ellipsoidal model is commonly used to construct topographic maps and for other large- and medium-scale maps that need to accurately depict the land surface.
A third model of the shape of the Earth is the geoid, a complex and more accurate representation of the global mean sea level surface that is obtained through a combination of terrestrial and satellite gravity measurements. This model is not used for mapping because of its complexity, but rather is used for control purposes in the construction of geographic datums. (In geodesy, plural of "datum" is "datums" rather than "data".) A geoid is used to construct a datum by adding irregularities to the ellipsoid in order to better match the Earth's actual shape. It takes into account the large-scale features in the Earth's gravity field associated with mantle convection patterns, and the gravity signatures of very large geomorphic features such as mountain ranges, plateaus and plains.
Historically, datums have been based on ellipsoids that best represent the geoid within the region that the datum is intended to map. Controls (modifications) are added to the ellipsoid in order to construct the datum, which is specialized for a specific geographic region (such as the North American Datum). A few modern datums, such as WGS84 which is used in the Global Positioning System, are optimized to represent the entire earth as well as possible with a single ellipsoid, at the expense of accuracy in smaller regions.
A fundamental projection classification is based on the type of projection surface onto which the globe is conceptually projected. The projections are described in terms of placing a gigantic surface in contact with the earth, followed by an implied scaling operation. These surfaces are cylindrical (e.g. Mercator), conic (e.g., Albers), or azimuthal or plane (e.g. stereographic). Many mathematical projections, however, do not neatly fit into any of these three conceptual projection methods. Hence other peer categories have been described in the literature, such as pseudoconic, pseudocylindrical, pseudoazimuthal, retroazimuthal, and polyconic.
Another way to classify projections is according to properties of the model they preserve. Some of the more common categories are:
Because the sphere is not a developable surface, it is impossible to construct a map projection that is both equal-area and conformal.
The three developable surfaces (plane, cylinder, cone) provide useful models for understanding, describing, and developing map projections. However, these models are limited in two fundamental ways. For one thing, most world projections in actual use do not fall into any of those categories. For another thing, even most projections that do fall into those categories are not naturally attainable through physical projection. As L.P. Lee notes,
No reference has been made in the above definitions to cylinders, cones or planes. The projections are termed cylindric or conic because they can be regarded as developed on a cylinder or a cone, as the case may be, but it is as well to dispense with picturing cylinders and cones, since they have given rise to much misunderstanding. Particularly is this so with regard to the conic projections with two standard parallels: they may be regarded as developed on cones, but they are cones which bear no simple relationship to the sphere. In reality, cylinders and cones provide us with convenient descriptive terms, but little else.
Lee's objection refers to the way the terms cylindrical, conic, and planar (azimuthal) have been abstracted in the field of map projections. If maps were projected as in light shining through a globe onto a developable surface, then the spacing of parallels would follow a very limited set of possibilities. Such a cylindrical projection (for example) is one which:
(If you rotate the globe before projecting then the parallels and meridians will not necessarily still be straight lines. Rotations are normally ignored for the purpose of classification.)
Where the light source emanates along the line described in this last constraint is what yields the differences between the various "natural" cylindrical projections. But the term cylindrical as used in the field of map projections relaxes the last constraint entirely. Instead the parallels can be placed according to any algorithm the designer has decided suits the needs of the map. The famous Mercator projection is one in which the placement of parallels does not arise by "projection"; instead parallels are placed how they need to be in order to satisfy the property that a course of constant bearing is always plotted as a straight line.
The term "normal cylindrical projection" is used to refer to any projection in which meridians are mapped to equally spaced vertical lines and circles of latitude (parallels) are mapped to horizontal lines.
The mapping of meridians to vertical lines can be visualized by imagining a cylinder whose axis coincides with the Earth's axis of rotation. This cylinder is wrapped around the Earth, projected onto, and then unrolled.
By the geometry of their construction, cylindrical projections stretch distances east-west. The amount of stretch is the same at any chosen latitude on all cylindrical projections, and is given by the secant of the latitude as a multiple of the equator's scale. The various cylindrical projections are distinguished from each other solely by their north-south stretching (where latitude is given by φ):
In the first case (Mercator), the east-west scale always equals the north-south scale. In the second case (central cylindrical), the north-south scale exceeds the east-west scale everywhere away from the equator. Each remaining case has a pair of secant lines—a pair of identical latitudes of opposite sign (or else the equator) at which the east-west scale matches the north-south-scale.
Normal cylindrical projections map the whole Earth as a finite rectangle, except in the first two cases, where the rectangle stretches infinitely tall while retaining constant width.
Pseudocylindrical projections represent the central meridian as a straight line segment. Other meridians are longer than the central meridian and bow outward away from the central meridian. Pseudocylindrical projections map parallels as straight lines. Along parallels, each point from the surface is mapped at a distance from the central meridian that is proportional to its difference in longitude from the central meridian. On a pseudocylindrical map, any point further from the equator than some other point has a higher latitude than the other point, preserving north-south relationships. This trait is useful when illustrating phenomena that depend on latitude, such as climate. Examples of pseudocylindrical projections include:
The term "conic projection" is used to refer to any projection in which meridians are mapped to equally spaced lines radiating out from the apex and circles of latitude (parallels) are mapped to circular arcs centered on the apex.
When making a conic map, the map maker arbitrarily picks two standard parallels. Those standard parallels may be visualized as secant lines where the cone intersects the globe—or, if the map maker chooses the same parallel twice, as the tangent line where the cone is tangent to the globe. The resulting conic map has low distortion in scale, shape, and area near those standard parallels. Distances along the parallels to the north of both standard parallels or to the south of both standard parallels are stretched; distances along parallels between the standard parallels are compressed. When a single standard parallel is used, distances along all other parallels are stretched.
The most popular conic maps include:
Azimuthal projections have the property that directions from a central point are preserved and therefore great circles through the central point are represented by straight lines on the map. Usually these projections also have radial symmetry in the scales and hence in the distortions: map distances from the central point are computed by a function r(d) of the true distance d, independent of the angle; correspondingly, circles with the central point as center are mapped into circles which have as center the central point on the map.
The radial scale is r'(d) and the transverse scale r(d)/(R sin(d/R)) where R is the radius of the Earth.
Some azimuthal projections are true perspective projections; that is, they can be constructed mechanically, projecting the surface of the Earth by extending lines from a point of perspective (along an infinite line through the tangent point and the tangent point's antipode) onto the plane:
Other azimuthal projections are not true perspective projections:
Conformal, or orthomorphic, map projections preserve angles locally, implying that they map infinitesimal circles of constant size anywhere on the Earth to infinitesimal circles of varying sizes on the map. In contrast, mappings that are not conformal distort most such small circles into ellipses of distortion. An important consequence of conformality is that relative angles at each point of the map are correct, and the local scale (although varying throughout the map) in every direction around any one point is constant. These are some conformal projections:
These are some projections that preserve area:
These are some projections that preserve distance from some standard point or line:
Great circles are displayed as straight lines:
Direction to a fixed location B (the bearing at the starting location A of the shortest route) corresponds to the direction on the map from A to B:
Compromise projections give up the idea of perfectly preserving metric properties, seeking instead to strike a balance between distortions, or to simply make things "look right". Most of these types of projections distort shape in the polar regions more than at the equator. These are some compromise projections:
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