How the Ebola Outbreak has Highlighted Ignorance of Africa’s Geography

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The Ebola outbreak has affected the African countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.  The sum total area of those three countries is 428,968 square kilometers (roughly the same area as California), representing only 1.42% of the total land area of Africa.  Africa, at 30,221,532 square kilometers, is the second largest continent in the world after Asia.

Yet, despite how large Africa is, hysteria about associating anyone traveling from the continent of Africa has made headlines.  A plane traveling from JFK airport in New York to Los Angeles was diverted on the tarmac and a woman suffering from  flu symptoms was removed by firefighters wearing hazardous materials after she had responded positively to a question by the flight crew asking if she had been in Africa recently.  The problem with that question was that she had been in South Africa which is roughly 5,400 kilometers from Liberia, the closest country affected by Ebola.  In contrast, the distance between NYC and LA is less than 4,000 kilometers.

Somewhere along the way, some tourists have forgotten that Africa is a continent.  Nervous tourists are canceling travel plans to countries across Africa, regardless of the incredible distances separating affected countries form the rest of the continent.  Unfortunately, the stance that ‘Ebola is in Africa‘ is harming an important source of revenue for many African countries, with tourism accounting for 8.5 percent to Africa’s gross domestic product.

Ebola outbreak distribution map for West Africa.  Source: CDC, October 10, 2014.
Ebola outbreak distribution map for West Africa. Source: CDC/WHO, October 10, 2014.

The gross ignorance about how large Africa is can be blamed, in part, by the cartographic misrepresentation of the size of Africa by certain map projections.  The overwhelming popularity of Mercator as the preferred map projection used by many atlases and online mapping applications such as Google Maps, Bing Maps, and Esri’s ArcGIS Online has perpetuated the idea that Africa is far smaller that it truly is.  While Mercator is great for marine navigation, it greatly skews geographic proportions near the poles.  On Mercator maps, Greenland, which is actually 2.16 million square kilometers in size, looks to be about the same size of Africa.

Greenland, which looks to be about the same size as Africa in the Mercator map projection, is actually almost 14 times smaller than the continent.  Source; Pratham.
Greenland, which looks to be about the same size as Africa in the Mercator map projection, is actually almost 14 times smaller than the continent. Source: Pratham.

How Many Countries can Africa hold?

Kai Krause’s “The True Size of Africa” which he describes as a, “simple graphical depiction of the statement: Africa is just immense – much, much larger than you or I thought. Just look at it, realize that, and smile – because you will never forget it again 🙂
And: here is to Africa achieving the stature that it deserves to have…”
  His infographic arranges 17 countries from around the world, including China and the United States (the third and fourth largest countries in the world) into the continent of Africa:

The True Size of Africa.  Source: Kai Krause.
The True Size of Africa. Source: Kai Krause.

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