How far is Miami from the other major cities of the world?
Measuring distances across the planet can be tricky business.
Earth, of course, is a three-dimensional object, a not-quite-so-perfect sphere.
Geographers — and especially practitioners of that even more arcane subject of geodesy — refer to the shape of the Earth as an ellipsoid (or spheroid) to account for its various geometric irregularities. For example, the Earth bulges slightly at the equator, making it wider along its center.
Measuring distances across an irregular three-dimensional surface is not as simple as doing so across a two-dimensional one. Doing it wrong could have grave ramifications.
The most well-known instance that comes to my mind is The Economist’s 2003 mis-representation of the distance North Korean missiles could travel.The cartographer / graphic designer responsible for that particular product measured the distances along a two-dimensional space, not accounting for the curvature of the Earth. The result was a significant underestimation of the distance the missiles could travel.
Shortly after, The Economist acknowledged its “flat-earth thinking” and issued the following correction:
Flat-earth thinking. Thank you to those readers who pointed out that, by superimposing concentric circles on a Mercator projection, the map [. . .] greatly underestimated the potential reach of North Korea’s missiles. We stand corrected.
The corrected version — which transforms the distance intervals to accommodate the Earth’s three-dimensionality — paints a more geographically-inclusive (and thus much more ominous) picture of North Korea’s intermittent missile threats.So in measuring distances from Miami to the rest of the world’s major cities, one must be sure to measure them in a way that accounts for the curvature of the Earth. The result is what’s called geodesic distance.
Google Maps recently made City Lab news for adding a geodesic distance measuring tool.
I thought I’d investigate some geodesic distances myself, using other geographic information system (GIS) tools, to elucidate just how far Miami is from other major world cities.
The results are presented by continent.
- North America
- South America
- Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Island sub-regions)
A few methodological and cartographic notes:
- All distances displayed are in kilometers (km).
- All geospatial base layer data came from Natural Earth. For world cities, I used their Populated Places layer. The Admin 0 — Countries were used for the background territories.
- Cities displayed in the maps below include only those containing at least one million (1,000,000) persons. (I did, however, measure distances to a far greater number of cities and towns across the world. If you’re curious about Miami’s distance from a particular settlement not displayed on any map here, let me know in the comments section.)
- Asia has far too many cities containing at least one million people to coherently represent them all in one map. I had to break-up the Asia map into two: Asia (west) and Asia (east). The division between “west” and “east” here is based strictly on whether the shortest distance from Miami is achieved by traversing the globe eastwardly (west Asia), or crossing it westwardly (east Asia).
- The maps are not ‘upside down’, ‘crooked’, or ‘mis-oriented’: the Earth is typically presented with north pointed upward out of socially-constructed convention, not out of any technical necessity. Here’s a great Al Jazeera piece explaining “How the north ended up on top of the map“. These maps are intended to help change one’s perspective of the world, hence the title: “Into Perspective . . .”
Let’s get on with it:
Post-Publication Note (2014/07/26): The distance to San Jose, USA was originally labelled incorrectly; it was originally, and wrongly, labelled as 1801 km. The error was the result of the labeling engine using the distance to San José, Costa Rica, rather than San Jose, USA. The city in California is actually, according to these analyses, 4116 km from Miami. The capital of Costa Rica is 1801 km from Miami. As of July 26, 2014, the corrected map is posted.
(I realize and apologize for the irony in my mapping mistake, as this very piece reports on The Economist’s mapping mistake when depicting potential travel distances of North Korean missiles. As one can see, it’s easy to make errors on maps; just try to limit them to minor labeling errors, and be sure to fix them quickly, or all hell might break loose.)