RealClimate logo

Speculative polar cartography

Filed under: — group @ 5 October 2011

Guest commentary from Kevin Brown

The curious mismapping of Greenland’s ice sheet cover by the venerable Times Atlas recently has excited a lot of outraged commentary. But few people noted that this follows an old tradition of speculative cartography of the polar regions. ‘Modern’ mapmakers as early as the 16th century combined real facts and scientific knowledge with fundamental misinterpretations of that knowledge to create speculative mappings of the world’s unknown shores – and nowhere was this more prevalent than at the poles.

Early cartographers had a particularly difficult time mapping the Polar Regions. Factually, they based their maps on reports from mariners who dared sail the dangerous waters. This was supplemented by information from earlier maps, speculations based upon their personal theories of geography, religious beliefs, and the fiscal and political ambitions of their patrons.

The earliest specific map of the North Pole is Gerard Mercator’s 1595 Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio (‘Northern Lands Described’, shown here is the 1606 edition). Mercator interprets a lost work known as the Inventio Fortunata (“The Fortunate Discovery”), which, though we don’t know for certain, supposedly refers to early journeys to Iceland and the Faeroes in the 14th century. Complementing and interpreting the Inventio, Mercator added real geographic knowledge collected by explorers Martin Frobisher (1535-1594) and John Davis (1550-1605) (amongst others). Mercator used the Inventio description of lands and peoples, Frobisher and Davis’s reports on currents, ice extent, and other elements, to compose this masterpiece of cartographic speculation.

At the North Pole Mercator placed a great mountain, the Rupes Nigra (“Black Rock”) around which flows a mighty whirlpool (hence the strong currents recorded by Davis and Frobisher). From here four powerful rivers flow inward dividing a supposed Arctic continent into four distinct lands. Mercator referenced the Inventio to populate these lands with pygmies, Amazons, and other anomalies. Between Asia and America Mercator added another great sea mountain to which he ascribes magnetic properties. This mountain evolved from a pet theory devised by Mercator to explain magnetic variation. It is also noteworthy that the seas all around the poles are open and navigable – it is very likely Mercator had in mind the interests of royal patrons eager for a Northwest or Northeast Passage.

Two hundred and fifty years later, in 1763, the French geographer Phillipe Buache (1700-1773), issued another wonderful attempt to address the problematic Polar Regions. Buache drew this map to expound upon his own theory of water basins wherein he hypothesized that the Antarctic contained two distinct land masses separated by a frozen sea. From the frequency of icebergs seen by early explorers such as Halley and Bouvet, Buache presumed that there must be a semi-frozen sea at the South Pole. This sea, which he argued (correctly) could only be fed by mountains in the surrounding polar lands, disgorged ice into the southern seas. He thus maps “Land yet undiscovered” and “Frozen Sea as Supposed”, “Supposed Chain of Mountains” as well as other speculations. In order to conform not only to his own theories but to accepted mappings of this region by venerable cartographers of the 16th and 17th centuries such as Kaerius and Orteilus, Buache also joins New Zealand to the Antarctic mainland and adds an expansive reservoir he names “Siberia”. Buache was highly influential in his time and aspects of his geographical speculation found their way into numerous maps of the period.

Maps such as these abound in early cartography and most, no matter how misguided, are genuine attempts to rectify the known and unknown. Some, like the maps above and the more contemporary Times Atlas’ map of Greenland, are derived from real scientific knowledge, but exhibit either a misunderstanding of geography or an erroneous hypothesis. These often lead to fictitious interpretations of factual data. Such errors do have ramifications. In the early days of polar exploration such maps often inspired to ill-fated nautical expeditions in search of pygmies, polar seas, and new lands. In modern times, such speculative mappings, both early and contemporary, have been used by some to disprove global warming, advocate for the continent of Atlantis, and prove that space aliens mapped the earth in antiquity.

It should therefore probably be always borne in mind that cartography has always been a blend of art and science – which of course is one of the reasons why it so fascinates us.

57 Responses to “Speculative polar cartography”

  1. 1
    Danny Bloom says:

    Therefore, where shall we situate our 144 polar cities scattered around the northern regions in 2500 AD? Any guesses?

  2. 2
    Jack Maloney says:

    “…speculations based upon their personal theories of geography, religious beliefs, and the fiscal and political ambitions of their patrons.”

    Why does this apply only to those on one side of the climate debate, and not the other?

  3. 3
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Jack Maloney @ 2, have you heard the expression “Reality has a well known liberal bias?” Greenhouse gasses in the air are increasing significantly, physics tells us this will warm the world, and measurement confirms it.

  4. 4
    S. Molnar says:

    A delightful exposition. The minute and totally fictitious detail of many early (and, it turns out, not so early) maps has a disturbing beauty.

    Jack Maloney’s question at #2 is, of course, a rhetorical device utilizing a false premise: the simultaneous existence of climate science and denialist propaganda does not constitute a debate.

  5. 5
    Jeffrey Davis says:


    A joke or a key word hunter?

  6. 6

    Delightful that RealClimate can dive into history and reconnect it with science. Thanks so much.

  7. 7
    Steve Fish says:

    Jack Maloney at ~#2. Your question demonstrates that you have very, very little familiarity with scientists and the process of science. Steve

  8. 8
    Mitch Lyle says:

    Jack Mahoney–first, this is about mapmaking and early polar maps, not whether or not scientists might respond to patrons.

    Second, as someone working on National Science Foundation grants, I have never experienced any pressure to ‘conform’ to any agenda. In fact, I think you would likely receive excellent reviews if you could devise a suitable test or data collection that would explore whether climate sensitivity was low in the past and under what conditions.

  9. 9
    Radge Havers says:

    Here be dragons. Reminds me of geology field camp way back in my olden days. During one of the more difficult mapping exercises, a fad for thrust faults took root and spread among the students based on an offhand remark made by one of the TAs — later described as mass “geo-fantasy” by one of the professors.

    People don’t always realize that mapping is a difficult and interpretive, problem solving adventure. Not to mention that easy answers sometimes attract the weary. Availability heuristics at work, I guess.

    Sort of like JM @ 2. Dude, it applies where it is appropriate. Duh. False balance much?

  10. 10

    Yes, a very enjoyable post!

  11. 11
    hank says:

    A quaint stroll down map-making memory lane this, but I’m afraid that there is absolutely no excuse for what is being described as a “major error” on the Times Atlas map of Greenland.
    If anything, it adds more fuel to the fire that is the AGW debate; as if even more finger-pointing were needed at this point.

  12. 12
    Adam H says:

    Very interesting post. Another interesting example of speculative cartography is Egede’s 1818 map of Greenland. There he depicts a great bisecting river dividing north and south Greenland, with the rivers mouth located in Jakobshavn Icefjord. More information can be found in a recent GEUS publication

    The exploration history and placenames of northern East Greenland

  13. 13
    Jos Hagelaars says:

    For those interested, there is a high resolution scan of Mercator’s 1625 edition of his North Pole map available on the Dutch Wikipedia site:
    You can find more scans of the same map and a page scan on:

  14. 14
    spyder says:

    Alas, science and technology have combined to give us GPS satellites (and much more sophisticated imaging ones operated by the DoD and NSA among others), that do a very respectable and reasonable job of mapping all of the earth. While the history of cartography is very interesting (and i really appreciate it in every way), this new Times Atlas map is a case of intentional spoofing to add sparks to the fading flicker of deniers. In all fairness, Harper Collins is owned by NewsCorp.

  15. 15
    Pete Wirfs says:

    This is not climate related, but as reciently as 1893 there were still people putting out maps of a “square and flat earth”.

  16. 16
    Mekhong Kurt says:

    I love reading this kind of stuff — many people thinking cartography is dry, boring, uninteresting work, but this article excellently makes the subject fascinating.

    Of course, some people have difficulty understanding any appeal to the field through a simple lack of knowledge. I’ve already lost count of the negative comments about the twin satellites we (the U.S.) launched a month or so ago to map the Moon, including through exploring its gravitational field and variations in that field; to some, mapping is simply accurately recording what the eye can see.

    Others fall short in imagination, logical reasoning ability, or both; see # 2 above.

  17. 17
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Jack Maloney, Uh, just what “agenda” do you think the NSF or NASA or or DOD for that matter might have wrt the coastline of Greenland beyond having an accurate idea of it?

  18. 18
    Anarchaeologist says:

    Your revision of polar maps has not gone unnoticed by the Great Old Ones. They demand that your inferior human cartography attempt to reproduce the windowless solids with five dimensions on the slopes of the Mountains of Madness above the Nameless City! Here is a tangentially related video to illustrate how skeptical I am of your theories!

  19. 19
    Edward Greisch says:

    I have no idea what Jack Maloney thinks the agenda might be, but the military has its own mapping service, maps being essential to combat. Consider the battle of Iwo Jima and a re-run with the Air Force’s nuclear bunker buster bombs. Yes, we have them. Not a secret. Think about our capability to map caves and underground structures from the air with gravimeters. Precise maps enable robots and cruise missiles to do the fighting. With long memory, we know where all of the displaced earth is and where it came from. Iran can put nuclear facilities under mountains, but they can’t hide them and they can’t protect them.

    They can run but they can’t hide.

  20. 20
    barn E. rubble says:

    RE: “. . . and the more contemporary Times Atlas’ map of Greenland, are derived from real scientific knowledge, but exhibit either a misunderstanding of geography or an erroneous hypothesis.”

    And what would the erroneous hypothesis be, that lead to this depiction of Greenland?

    [Response: That a map of the ice sheet proper was a map of all the ice. Read the SPRI comment on the affair. – gavin]

  21. 21
    bill the frog says:


    Thank you for the illuminating (no pun intended) article.

    I wonder if you are in a position to give some vaguely quantitative answer to a question that has perplexed me for some time?

    Since John Harrison cracked the problem of reliable timekeeping at sea with his H4 watch way back before the War of Independence, navigators have been equipped with the tools to accurately plot both latitude and longitude. As a consequence of such developments, cartography must have moved gradually into a new era of ever improving fidelity. (Not that I’ve got anything against “here be dragons” – except when Scotland are playing Wales at rugby.)

    With the advent of satellite measurements, even greater accuracy would have become commonplace. (Given a certain notable recent exception of course.) However, what I don’t have a quantitative feel for is the accuracy of, say, naval maps produced at the beginning of the 20th Century when compared with their modern satellite generated equivalents from the 21st Century.

    For example, if the 21st Century map showed Greenland at 2,166,086 sq km (if Wiki is to be believed) then what approximate percentage difference might one expect to find between that and its early 20th Century predecessor?

    The reason for my interest concerns an exchange of views that was being conducted with one of the denizens from the dark side over at WTFUWT about a year ago. (Unfortunately terminated early when my PC went to join its Silicon siblings in that great semi-conductor junk yard in the sky.)

    Multi-decadal trends in Arctic Sea Ice was the topic, and it was being suggested that those parts of the Walsh & Chapman Northern Sea Ice data set (held at the University of Illinois) that were recorded prior to 1979 should be ignored. Apparently the means of establishing the ice boundary prior to direct satellite observation is somehow incompatible with satellite measurements. (In other words, all long term science is a waste of time, as results need to be thrown away any time the measuring equipment gets updated!!!!!ROTFLOL)

    Although the claim is egregious nonsense, it would be nice to have some kind of feel for the relative accuracies.

    Cheers Bill F

  22. 22
    Geno Canto del Halcon says:

    I have wondered if perhaps many early explorers were obsessed with finding the “northwest passage” because early Norse explorers had seen one; that is, during the medieval warm period, perhaps enough Arctic Sea Ice melted to create something of a navigable passage through the Canadian Archipelago. Pure speculation on my part…

  23. 23
    Hank Roberts says:

    Contact between native North Americans and the
    Medieval Norse: A review of the evidence

    from a quick search:

  24. 24
    Jonathan says:

    Maybe it is a coincidence, but the Times Atlas is put out by the Rupert Murdoch media empire.

  25. 25
    Nyle says:

    I wonder if it is because of this type of old map making that we believe today that the Ice caps are melting a lot more than they are?

  26. 26
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Here is a map of the world with a 100 m sealevel rise:

    You can go to the link below the world map to enlarge any area.

  27. 27
    Jack Maloney says:

    Lynn: What scenario – including timeline – would lead to a 100m rise in sea level? Is your scenario at all plausible? It certainly is alarming!

  28. 28
    Hugh says:

    I don’t think NewsCorp would deliberately exaggerate the impacts of AGW on Greenland, just so it could then “expose” the mistake. It’s a bit too complicated for them. And it’s not as though every branch of the Murdoch empire is a one-minded slave to his agenda, there is a capacity for differing opinions. Though the fact that it was published by a subsidiary of NewsCorp actually works against the idea that it was a deliberate attempt to deceive. If anyone says/implies that they were paid to do it (i.e. #2), one need only point out that they were ultimately paid by Rupert Murdoch (and that the first people to complain about it were the polar scientists themselves).

  29. 29

    Please note that, in addition to Nyle‘s rather dubious comment above, his name links back to RC itself.

    Very troll-like.

    In case Nyle is just under-informed: If you are referring to the Arctic Sea Ice (Death Spiral, anyone?), the Greenland Ice Sheet or the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, we know those features are losing volume/mass in record amounts every year through a variety of sources/mechanisms. Even the East Antarctic Ice Sheet has been losing mass.

    In addition, the majority of monitored alpine glaciers worldwide are in negative mass balance.

    But Google could find all of that for you, if you just avoid the disinformation sites.

  30. 30
  31. 31
    Jack Maloney says:

    From the link cited in comment #30:

    “…the melting of all existing ice sheets would result in a sea level rise of ~80 meters.”

    Comment #26 adds a further 20 meters. Both introduce, without explanation, an implausible risk on an unspecified time scale.

  32. 32
    Hank Roberts says:

    Jack, you’re trying to craft a kerfuffle out of nothing.

    Lynn pointed to a contour chart

    The page makes no reference to any risk, not even an implausible risk.

    There’s no monster under that particular bed.

    Please try harder.

    If you want to pretend every science reference is someone’s claim of a risk, you’re way off base here. There are other blogs for that activity.

  33. 33
    Hank Roberts says:

    PS for Jack: reassure yourself here; the crust will sink
    while sea level rises, making up some of that difference
    “120 meters”
    Post-glacial rebound – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    but it’s not imminent.

  34. 34
    Hank Roberts says:

    From the Wikipedia link, lest anyone misread — areas where ice goes away rebound (rise up); areas where loading increases as sea level rises sink. Caption from one of the illustrations at the Wikipedia page:

    “A model of present-day surface elevation change due to post-glacial rebound and the reloading of the ocean basins with seawater. Red areas are rising due to the removal of the ice sheets. Blue areas are falling due to the re-filling of the ocean basins when the ice sheets melted and because of the collapse of the forebulges around the ice sheets….”

    That’s a snapshot of present-day conditions.

  35. 35
    Jack Maloney says:

    Climate change is a critical global issue. But prattling on about implausible risks like an 80-100m sea level rise undercuts the credibility of genuine concerns – one of the reasons that the public is beginning to lose interest in the climate change issue.

  36. 36
    Sharon Thomas says:

    [edit – too tedious, and way off topic. Really, why bother?]

  37. 37
    Daniel J. Andrews says:

    I highly recommend clicking on that last link in the article if you haven’t done so already. Informative and a bit amusing in a very understated way–the author could have readily have skewered the politician with satire/sarcasm, but just pointed out how and why he was wrong. Skepticalscience probably should include that link in any rebuttal dealing with the Greenland ice-mapping non-event.

    (one of captcha’s two words has superscripts, half italics, then a few glyphs that look like something the artist formerly known as Prince would use–thank goodness for the “get a new challenge” button–“challenge” indeed!)

  38. 38
    Joseph says:

    Examining the erroneous Times Atlas map provided in the link, I have discovered another, if more minor, error. The map depicts the major international airport of Greenland as located in Nuuk. As anybody who has traveled to Greenland knows, the airport is in fact in Kangerlussuaq. This error conforms with a preconceived notion that the major airport serves the capital (a luxury Greenland’s geography does not allow). Preconceived notions seem to indeed play a central role in map-making.

  39. 39

    JM 35: the public is beginning to lose interest in the climate change issue.

    BPL: “There is now way logically to get from the proposition ‘I am losing interest in this’ to the proposition ‘This is false’.” –C.S. Lewis

  40. 40
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE the 100 m sea rise map, I just thought it was an interesting map. For one thing it sort of puts one’s mind at ease if they happened to see WATERWORLD.

    Also I was interested in such maps, tho ones with a 60 m rise, bec I was writing a sci fi script set way in the future, based on the worst case GW scenario. I can’t remember, but I think some climate scientists suggested that a 60 m rise could possibly happen within 1000 yrs under worst case scenario. Maybe it was 2000 yrs ??

    Of course, now science is inching ahead of sci fi with the possibility that GW could spiral into runaway conditions and all the oceans would boil away.

    Then the sea level would go down, and cartographers would really have their work cut out for them.

  41. 41
    KeithWoollard says:

    I think we must use a different system of arithmetic down here in Australia, 1606 to 1763 is only 157 years for us, not 250

  42. 42
    dNorwood says:

    re: 41
    I think it has to do with the Coriolis force….

    re: responses to #2
    I was surprised to read the responses to #2, since when I first read it
    I assumed he HAD to be talking about the deniers and their obvious
    economic and political enablers. Hm.

  43. 43


    Ah. You may not know Jack, then. . .

    (Literally, not metaphorically–the idiomatic sense would be rude!)

  44. 44

    Oh, and while we’re on Medieval maps and climate–should you encounter any believers in “Vikings sailed the Northwest Passage” types, you can point them to this map:álholt-Karte.png

    It’s from 1570, but is believed to be copied from much earlier charts (and was outdated in that it didn’t reflect the voyages of the Portugese.) Note the conception of an enclosed North Atlantic.

  45. 45

    Oh, fiddle. . . the comment about “the explorations of the Portugese” actually refers to *this* map:

    Specifically, the speculation that perhaps North America joined with Africa somewhere far, far to the south. Prince Henry’s men put paid to that thought sometime during the last days of the Greenland colony:

    But I expect it took a while for word to circulate around Europe.

  46. 46
    Ed Beroset says:

    This reminds me of two recent books I’ve read, both of which may be appreciated by readers here. The first is _The Illustrated Longitude_ which is the story of John Harrison’s successful quest to invent a reliable sea-going clock (as an earlier comment alluded).

    The other is _The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America’s Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas_.

    So how is this relevant to the topic at hand? In both of these books, as with climate science, the making of accurate maps by use of careful, scientifically derived methods and instruments was a major theme.

  47. 47
    Pekka Kostamo says:

    Don’t worry, be happy.

    Decreasing albedo due to greening of Greenland will be amply compensated for by increasing albedo of Texas. Maybe observations over the past ten years makes possible an analysis?

  48. 48
    timg56 says:

    Am I missing something here? Kevin Brown provides a very interesting background on early polar cartography. Where I get lost is the conclusion – that it is completely acceptable for a 21st century Atlas to produce a depiction that is not factual.

    I wouldn’t purport to argue the Times Atlas faux paugh (sp?) says anything about the climate change issue. But I for one certainly expect any atlas I pay for to provide accurate information. If there are errors, ok, so long as a correction is issued when they are discovered. In my mind a good post is sort of ruined by what appears to be the issuance of an excuse.

  49. 49
    Hank Roberts says:

    timg, I think you got lost before you reached the conclusion you quote, since it doesn’t appear in the post here.

    You saw or imagined this: “the conclusion – that it is completely acceptable for a 21st century Atlas to produce a depiction that is not factual.”

    What you read above, here: “Some, like the maps above and the more contemporary Times Atlas’ map of Greenland, are derived from real scientific knowledge, but exhibit either a misunderstanding of geography or an erroneous hypothesis. These often lead to fictitious interpretations of factual data. Such errors do have ramifications.”

    Perhaps you are experiencing the very failing being discussed, seeing what you expect or want to say is there, instead of what’s there?

    Look again. Look around, see if you can figure out where you got the idea.

  50. 50
    timg56 says:


    I see where I may have read more into it than Kevin intended. These two sentences are what led me to the conclusion above:

    “the maps above and the more contemporary Times Atlas’ map of Greenland”

    and more specifically this one at the beginning

    “The curious mismapping of Greenland’s ice sheet cover by the venerable Times Atlas ….. this follows an old tradition of speculative cartography of the polar regions”

    are what gave me the impression of the post being one that “excuses” – which may not be the best term – the error on the part of the Times Atlas as being not that big of a deal because of the rich history of errors from older cartographic attempts.

    Errors in 16th century maps are understandable. Errors in 21st century atlas’ are not.