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Throwback Thursday: Changing Arctic maps

  • Aug 12, 2015
  • 383 words
  • 2 minutes
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Image: Septentrionalium Terrarum description (Northern Land transcribed), by Gerardus Mercator, 1595. (Map: Library and Archives Canada. e004414662)

The Arctic is hot. At least with Canadian Geographic readers. Our readership surveys identify Canada’s Far North as one of the top three topics (wildlife and parks are the other two).

And so over the years, the magazine has written tons about our nation’s polar region, including a particularly interesting spread back in the January/February 2007 issue (which, coincidentally, featured a cover story on life on a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker) on the history of cartography in the Arctic.

The story (“Northern exposure”—nice!) by Jeffery Murray, then senior archivist at Library and Archives Canada (since retired), notes that Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition and subsequent searches for it did much to map as yet uncharted regions of the Arctic. Murray also notes that: “For a period, more was known about the Arctic islands and the Northwest Passage than about the boreal hinterlands of Ontario and the Prairies.”

The maps accompanying the piece are representative of cartographers changing understanding of the Arctic over three centuries. There’s a 1595 map by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator with a magnetic rock at the North Pole, to which all waters allegedly flowed into the centre of the Earth. There’s a 1715 projection by Dutch mapmaker Frederick de Wit, which shows the shorelines of northeastern North America taking shape. And there’s an 1876 chart by Englishman Edward Stanford in which much of Canada’s Arctic coastline is well defined, though there’s still a large “Unexplored Polar Region” around the North Pole.

Only four years after Stanford’s map was created, the British government transferred sovereignty over the Arctic islands to Canada (on July 31, 1880), “recognizing the impossibility of using the Northwest Passage as a shipping route” as Murray writes. Of course, climate change is likely to necessitate redrawing Arctic maps in the future, and a northern shipping route may one day be possible.

Canadian Geographic Education, the educational program arm of Canadian Geographic’s publisher The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, published a new tiled circumpolar map earlier this year. It represents the most detailed Arctic project today. Interesting to consider that one day, it may also be just another chapter in a story of the cartographic evolution of the Arctic.


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