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Monday, April 13, 2009

THE PROBLEM WITH GREENLAND


I think everybody has a problem with Greenland, one way or another. There are only 57,000 people living in the 299 international calling code; that’s one person for every 690 square miles. Of those precious few Greenlanders, 88% are Inuit and almost all are Lutherans. And yet according to UN data, without an obvious underclass (like blacks or Mexicans or Gypsies) to scapegoat, the average Greenlander is still three times more likely to be murdered than the average European, and eight times more likely to be the victim of violence. And that is just the latest of Greenland’s problems.Every winter a low pressure zone forms off the southeast coast of Greenland. And while this it not Greenland’s fault, it still makes them a very bad neighbor. Because lows rotate counterclockwise in the Northern hemisphere, this low draws bursts of warm moist southern air into the arctic and fuels one storm after another, creating a dully predictable pattern of lousy weather for Europe all winter long, a legacy from Greenland.It is not an accident that Alfred Wegener, the scientist who first suggested what he called "Continental Drift", died on an expedition to Greenland in 1930. One of the first pieces of evidence which caused Wegener to suspect the world had not always looked as it does today, came when he compared longitude measurements from the 1820’s with those made in the first decade of the 20th century and found that, in a hundred years, Greenland had somehow moved a mile further away from Europe.More than 80% of Greenland is covered in glacier ice several miles thick, which has compressed the land underneath to 1,000 feet below sea level. If all that ice were to melt quickly (as it appears to be doing) then a map of the largest island in the world (which Greenland is) would have to be redrawn as a string of islands.Greenland represents the first great marketing scam in history. Norseman Erik the Red was such a violent maniac that in the year 983 he was banished from his native Iceland for three years. When he returned he told everyone about a wonderful place he had discovered over the western sea. He called his nirvana Greenland, because if he had called it “Popcicle Land" or “land frozen solid”, nobody would have followed him there.
In fact the southern and west coasts of Greenland are indeed green in their short summer, and supported enough sheep and goats to feed an outpost of Viking fur traders for 300 years. But by the time Christopher Columbus “discovered” North America, the climate had turned and the Norsemen and Norsewomen had been starved out.Looking at a map, Greenland is not as big as you think. On the average map it looms like a center piece on a banquet table, as large as Africa or South America. But in fact it is about the same size as Mexico But at least we know who to blame for this particular misconception, a Belgium cartographer named Gheert Cremer. In Flemish the family name means merchant, and that was why, when, as was the custom in the Middle Ages, Gheert chose a Latin name for his professional career, he chose the Latin word for merchant; Mercator.
In 1544 Gheert Mercator was arrested for heresy. Because he had traveled so much to gather information for his maps the local religious authorities had grown suspicious of him. They searched his home and confiscated his personal belongings. Despite leaving his wife and two children destitute, they kept Gheert locked up for seven months. Not only was he forced to pay for his own imprisonment, but he had to watch while several of those arrested with him were tortured for information implicating him. And when they failed to admit their sins (and his), they were burned at the stake or buried alive. Gheert was finally released in September of 1544, broke and still under suspicion. It took him six years of hard work, but in 1552, now recognized as the greatest cartographer in Europe, with his finances finally repaired, Gheert moved his family to Duisburg, in modern Germany, in a region controled by protestants. Now he had the freedom to not only earn a living, but risk his soul by doubting church dogma, if that was his choice.It was after his moved to Duisburg, in 1569, that Gheert discovered a way to transfer the great circle routes, which are the shortest travel distance between two points on the surface of a globe, to the shortest routes drawn between two points on flat sheet of paper, a straight line. The system he came up with, what is today called a Mercator Projection, compressed the distances between latitudes at the equator and lengthened those nearer the poles, allowing all the lines of longitude and latitude to cross at right angles even as the surface area they are demarking expanded and shrank. The result makes Greenland (836,000 sq. miles) appear to be the same size as the African continent (30 million sq. miles) and twice the size of China, which is actually about the same size as the United States.Using this projection a navigator does not have to account for the curvature of the earth, the map does it for him. That makes a Mercator Projection a true tool, like a ruler or a hammer. And that makes what the local Catholic Church officials did to Gheert in the name of defending the faith an actual betrayal of that faith. Because it denied Gheert the use of God’s greatest tool - his brain.
The draw back to the Mecator Projection is that it was too successful. It has become so pervasive that it has distorted our thinking about the real world, sort of like using a hammer to repair a leaking pipe. If you examine a Mercator map closely you will discover that the equator is actually not along the middle line. It’s lower. This makes the United States and Europe appear bigger than they actually are, which may make us Americans feel good but it makes the residents of India feel belittled, since Mercator maps show Scandinavia as big as India, when India (1,270,000 sq. miles) is three times the size of Norway, Sweden and Denmark combined.Perhaps it is best to remember the words of one map shop owner, who wrote on his blog, “I sell this map. I don't warn people when they buy it that, like any good newspaper, it contains a few lies".By the way, Gheert Cremer (Mercator) did something else for us. He dedicated his first collection of maps to the mythical African King of Mauretania, who, according to legend, built the first celestial globe to show the positions of the stars and thus balanced the whole world on his shoulders. Today we refer to all collections of maps by the name of that king; Atlas.
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