How Cartographers Respond to Border Changes

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The recent conflict in Crimea has brought to the forefront the process by which mapmakers respond to border changes.  The outcome of an upcoming referendum could switch Crimea from Ukrainian to Russian control. Julie Johnson from Bloomberg News has a short article about when and how cartographers update maps when borders change.

Johnson noted that in the United States, most map making companies take the lead from the State Department in determining when to update border changes on their maps.  Other countries and commercial agencies have different approaches:

Unless they are propagandists, cartographers are typically a conservative bunch, according to Jim Akerman, curator of maps for Chicago’s Newberry Library, whose collections range from ancient maps to almost every atlas, road and railroad map published by Rand McNally.

“It matters where maps are made,” Akerman said. Some Russian mapmakers may be quick, following the plebiscite, to redraw borders to reassert a Russian claim to the territory dating to Catherine the Great, he said. “Others are very slow to make changes unless they’re supported by treaties.”


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Some map companies attempt to take a neutral approach when border disputes aren’t resolved.  Google, which has had its fair share of political controversy over its cartography, opts to show border disputes with a dotted line.  It has also simply left areas blank when there is no consensus between countries, such as  Google’s refusal to name the gulf between Iran and the Arab Gulf states on Google Maps.

National Geographic takes a more involved approach when assessing border changes:

As to Crimea, National Geographic will wait to hear the outcome of the referendum, monitoring the situation very closely to see how the U.S. State Department and governments worldwide respond. Valdes will also seek out ‘‘as many new source maps as we can get our hands on.’’

‘‘I will gather all of that information, sit down with our map policy committee, which is staffed by the higher echelons here at National Geographic and decide how best to proceed cartographically with Crimea on all our maps,’’ Valdes said.

The deliberations will culminate on a vote by the committee, Valdes said, a process that dates back to the founding of scientific and educational institution in 1888. He’ll then draft a memo and a sample map outlining to staff how National Geographic’s database will be altered and how map files should be updated.

Read more: Mapmakers Wary on Crimea After Google Latin America Flap

The BBC also has an article with a series of maps showing the political changes to the area of Crimea as viewed from historical maps.  See: Ukraine maps chart Crimea’s troubled past.  

Map showing Ukraine and Crimea.  Source: CIA, The World Factbook.

Map showing Ukraine and Crimea. Source: CIA, The World Factbook.


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