Mapping the Arctic Circle – Then and Now

Mapping of the Arctic region has historically proved to be a challenge for cartographers and geo-scientists, though as referred to in a previous article (see here),  local knowledge is valuable in contributing to knowledge of the often perceived ‘wilderness’ by ‘Westerners’. In many ways, as alluded to in Alastair Bonnett’s brilliant book, Off the Map, despite living in an age of digital mapping, there is much geographic knowledge still to be discovered. This is perhaps most relevant and important, given global warming, in the Arctic region, and two recent articles associated to this piqued my interest in this area, and thought it would be a good follow up to my previous Arctic related post.


The godfather of modern cartography, Gerald Mercator, produced in 1569 the above world map, using his projection system which was particularly useful and designed for sailors, while still striving for accuracy, which still leaves its legacy today. We all know the issues regarding the projection, for example, making Greenland and other areas nearer the poles seem a lot bigger than reality, but the detail and accuracy of his work is still impressive and was a major stepping stone.

However, one area sticks out as inaccurate, and that is the North Pole, which, following popular knowledge was believed to have a land mass, with four chunks of land with rivers flowing from them. One of Mercator’s proteges, Jodocus Hondius, built on his late master’s work, producing what is believed to the world’s first draft map of the Arctic circle, including a magnetic mountain and pygmies. This belief in North Pole land mass disappeared in maps (see here), but Atlas Obsurca’s article on  Septentrionalium Terrarum is still a great read.

“Centuries ago, though, when people tried to map the Arctic, they weren’t too concerned with what was happening to it—they just wanted to know what the heck was up there.”


These days getting geographical data about Arctic, Canada, Greenland etc is much easier and within a few clicks, especially with the likes of Google Earth. Even I have managed to get a paper map of Greenland from London map shop ‘Stanfords’. However, detailed and high resolution imagery are harder to find, with much of the imagery taken from flyovers in 1930s and 1980s. This is problematic in implementing imagery and maps with accurate GPS for scientific analyses and emergency services. This is about to change though. According to Arctic Journal, commercially operated European satellites, SPOT 6 and 7, have spent 2 years collecting high resolution imagery of areas of Greenland.

“Objects as small as 1.5m can be discerned in the pictures, making them detailed enough to be used to make precise, high-resolution maps.”

This data will soon be free and readily accessible to users in Europe and publicly available this autumn. With recent advances in accessible, higher resolution, newer, cloud removed Sentinel imagery in an industry where the ability to send satellites and process high-res imagery is getting easier, this is another exciting development. However it is perhaps more important in places like Greenland, where high resolution imagery was scarce, and has the potential to be vital for science and communities here. Watch this space.

Happy Mapping,


Credits: Atlas Obscura, Arctic Journal, ESA


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