In a typical cylindrical projection, one imagines the paper to be wrapped as a cylinder around the globe, tangent to it along the equator. Light comes from a point source at the center of the globe or, in some cases, from a filament running from pole to pole along the globe's axis. In the former case the poles clearly cannot be shown on the map, as they would be projected along the axis of the cylinder out to infinity. In the latter case the poles become lines forming the top and bottom edges of the map. The Mercator projection, long popular but now less so, is a cylindrical projection of the latter type that can be constructed only mathematically. In all cylindrical projections the meridians of longitude, which on the globe converge at the poles, are parallel to one another; in the Mercator projection the parallels of latitude, which on the globe are equal distances apart, are drawn with increasing separation as their distance from the equator increases in order to preserve shapes. However, the price paid for preserving shapes is that areas are exaggerated with increasing distance from the equator. The effect is most pronounced near the poles; e.g., Greenland is shown with enormously exaggerated size, although its shape in small sections is preserved. The poles themselves cannot be shown on the Mercator projection. Students using the Mercator projection obtain an incorrect impression of the relative sizes of the countries of the world.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.