Maps that put a Twist on Global Population

Elizabeth Borneman


Creating sets of useful geographic data can help solve many different kinds of problems around the world.

For modern cartographers, advances in technology allow for the use of satellite images to analyse anything from rainfall to agriculture, soil nutrition to surface temperature. These pieces of data about the world around us can help us understand the changes our world is going through as well as help create projections about the future.

Mapping the movement of people around the world is of great interest to researchers in a variety of fields. Cartographers have created maps that showcase the diversity of the world’s population in unique ways. The following four maps are examples of the creative ways that population can be mapped.

People as Mountains

A map called the “Earth According to Population Density” was created by Marnix Hamelberg. A freelance GIS specialist in Amsterdam, Hamelberg considered what the Earth would look like if people were mapped as geographical features.

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Hamelberg’s map represents places of low population density as flat, grassy valleys, while high, snowy mountains are locations with a lot of people packed densely together. Hamelberg wanted his map to be a tool that could make visualizing how many people there are on Earth easier.

He wanted to create a map that made it easier to see how many people there are on Earth, rather than relying on abstract shapes or colors to track population density. By attaching population to geographical features, he was able to pull the abstract idea of a population of millions of people together with the quantifiable visual of a mountain or valley, which are metrics we can all visualize.

Earth According to Population Density.  Map: Marnix Hemelberg
Earth According to Population Density. Map: Marnix Hemelberg

For anyone familiar with world geography, the map of the Earth According to Population Density will look quite different than what we’re used to seeing. In place of the grand Himalaya range is a deep, grassy valley, while large mountain chains soar nearest to the coastlines of nations. Southeast Asia sprouts the highest mountains in the world running from Japan to India, Indonesia to Bangladesh.

Since mountainous regions are inhospitable for most people, these areas in Hamelberg’s map show next to nothing. Meanwhile, humans have settled in areas of temperate weather, agricultural possibility, and, most importantly, water sources. This creates an inverted map shape, with valleys where our real mountains are and mountains where the population on Earth is the densest.

Hamelberg is most interested in the areas of the world where there is the highest population density, rather than places like North America that have a few areas of high population (big cities) and a lot of rural space.

Per Square Mile

Tim de Chant has a question to ask the world. He wanted to know what the world would look like if… if we all lived together, if the population of the world could fit into certain spaces. His questions led to the Per Square Mile map series, which shows what the world would look like if our population was squished down.

arge would a city be if you squeezed the entire world’s population of 6.9 billion into that city?  Tim De Chant took a look at the geographic range of different theoretical cities based on the current population densities of Paris, New York, San Francisco, London, Singapore, and Houston.  

If the world’s population lived like… Maps: Tim de Chant
If the world’s population lived like… Maps: Tim de Chant

Against the backdrop of a outline map of the United States, De Chant mapped out how many states would encompass each city.

Of course, he then broke that data down into smaller pieces, analysing population based on real city’s population densities.

For instance, if the entire world had the population density of New York, Earth’s 7 billion people could fit into a space the size of the state of Texas. If we took the population density of the city of Houston, though, that space would expand dramatically.

Although we may all be able to fit into a space the size of Texas, how would that community be supported? There would still need to be roads, stores, fields to grow food, farms, and other infrastructural systems and industry in order to support 7 billion people. The land requirements that it takes to support any city is much larger than the city itself.

A theoretical city based on Houston, with the lowest population density in the group, takes up the most geographic space, extended over what seems to be two-thirds of the U.S. and occupying almost 1.8 million square miles.  The smallest theoretical city, with almost 128,000 square miles, was based on a population density equal to Paris.

De Chant wanted to track the ecological footprints of cities and the resources they need in order to support their populations. However, analyzing this data is difficult because many cities don’t track their resource use at all. His infographics certainly show that the world is, at the same time, larger and smaller than we can ever imagine.

World Population Distributed by Latitude and Longitude

An updated version of a population map has been created, plotting population distribution by latitude and longitude. A previous map was commonly used that analyzed population data from 2000, but there have been a few shifts in the population numbers since then.

The map plots lines that account for population per square mile on earth, approximately. The lines are made up of population data points and show the total amount of people who live in that location at either the latitude or longitudinal points. The new map shows that there has been a shift in population in the east, and that the northern hemisphere has grown.

World Population Distribution by Latitude and Longitude - 2015.  Map: Datagraver
World Population Distribution by Latitude and Longitude – 2015. Map: Datagraver

The new map also shows a chart documenting population density by land area and by specific geographic coordinates.

Looking at the map, you can see that nearly 90% of the world’s population lives in the northern hemisphere. You can also find that the average person lives about 24 degrees to the north or south of the equator. Unfortunately, this type of map only shows that there is a population spike, not precisely where it is.

Although the map has faulty points, it is yet another way that cartography can be used in unique and creative ways.

Population Density Slider

An expert in creating unique maps, Derek Watkins has produced a map that shows the world in ways we haven’t seen it before. Watkins built a population map with a density slider, changing the features of the map when you slide the density bar up and down. Using population metrics, Watkins analyzed the data and created the map to give people a real look at how many of us live in certain places around the world. Places with very high density are few and far between, and the map becomes more filled in as the density slider goes down.

Watkin’s scale is based on the 2010 data from the CIESIN Gridded Population of the World. The scale is based on people per kilometer and increases in increments of five, up to 75 people per kilometer.

Maps are a unique way to think about the world and the people around us. These four maps are just a few of the incredible cartography creations that are made by imaginative people with access to incredible technology.


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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.