Pop by Lat and Pop by Long


Frank Jacobs on May 1, 2012

Did you know that almost 90% of the world’s population lives in the northern hemisphere? And that half of all Earthlings [1] reside north of 27°N? Or that the average human lives at 24 degrees from the equator – either to its north or south? Bill Rankin did. Or at least he found out, while producing this fascinating diptych of world maps, plotting population distribution on axes of longitude and latitude.

These maps have been floating around the internet for a few years now [2]. Like barnacled ships and whales at sea, they show their age by the virtual symbionts with which they are encrusted.

Or in this case, some rather opinionated comments.

Some commenters find fault with these maps: Exactly what information do they display? It is not population density, so much as population distribution that is shown. From either of these infographics alone, the precise locations of the densely inhabited centres of the world are not readily deducable.

But I side with those who fall for the abstract beauty of these graphs. Divorced from direct geographical (let alone historical and sociological) context, and further divided by longitude and latitude [3], they have an intriguing quality, inviting us to decode them all over again.

Let’s take the Pop by Lat graph, which shows us the distribution of the world’s population per degree of latitude (i.e. north to south).

Screen shot 2012-05-01 at 15.33.15

  • Population-wise, the Earth is indeed visibly, massively tilted towards the north. How much less crowded would the planet be if the northern hemisphere were as populous as the southern one? If the above-mentioned north-south distribution is correct (only 10% living in the South), the grand total would be: 1.4 billion.
  • The only exception to the South’s underpopulation seems to be a massive spike just below the equator. Which cities lie on this latitude? Kinshasa, Jakarta, …
  • Other spikes further south must correspond with Sao Paulo, and with Buenos Aires and the Australian megalopolises [4]
  • The general trend of the graph is to taper out towards the south; at its very end, it does so in a shape remarkably similar to the last piece of (inhabited) land, Patagonia.
  • Considering that habitable zones in theory should be equidistant from the equator, it’s even more shocking how much more people live north of that line. Granted, there ismore land. But still.
  • The European latitudes seem remarkably unpopulated, relative to the ones just to its south.
  • It’s a fair guess, though, that those spikes are not caused by Africa’s northern shores (Cairo, and by extension Egypt excepted), but by the big population centres on the Indian subcontinent and in China. And by the combined weight of the US and Mexican population.
  • The ‘sweet spot’ where population thrives seems to be between approximately 20°N and 40°N.

In spite of its huge imbalance, the Pop by Lat map still presents a unified image: a giant, if unevenly sloping mountain. The Pop by Long map shows a much less more diverse set of data. Perhaps not surprising, as the constant of climate is no longer a factor, rather than the accident of continentality (if that’s a word).

Screen shot 2012-05-01 at 15.34.00

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