Why is North Always Up on Maps?

iStock/Princessdlaf
iStock/Princessdlaf

Geophysicists recently updated the World Magnetic Model—navigational data used for everything from cell phones to satellites—and found that magnetic north, a spot once located in Arctic Canada, is moving quickly toward Siberia. But even this discovery doesn't quite explain why maps always feature north at the top.

There’s nothing inherently upward about north. Some early Egyptian maps put south on top, while in medieval Europe, Christian cartographers tended to give that distinction to east, since you had to turn that way to face Jerusalem. Others placed east on top because of the rising Sun (that’s why we orient ourselves). And early American settlers sometimes used maps with west on top, because that was the direction they were often heading.

If anyone deserves the blame for today’s northward bias, it’s Claudius Ptolemy. In the 2nd century, he wrote the influential Geographia, which featured a “global” map with north on top. No one’s positive why he positioned it that way, but it may be that the Library of Alexandria—where he did his research—simply didn’t have much information on the Southern Hemisphere. During the Renaissance, Ptolemy’s work was revived. By then, the phenomenon of magnetic north had been discovered, making his layout even more appealing to mapmakers.

The magnetic north pole, however, was not located until 1831. On an otherwise disastrous expedition to Arctic, British explorer James Clark Ross discovered the pole—the spot where a compass needle on a horizontal axis points straight down—on the west coast of Canada's Boothia peninsula. "I must leave it to others to imagine the elation of mind with which we found ourselves now at length arrived at this great object of our ambition," Ross recalled. "Nothing now remained for us but to return home and be happy for the rest of our days."

This story was originally published in 2014.

The World’s Steepest Street Is in Harlech, Wales

Tonktiti/iStock via Getty Images
Tonktiti/iStock via Getty Images

It wasn’t by chance that Ffordd Pen Llech just clinched the Guinness World Record for the world’s steepest street: The townspeople of Harlech, Wales, worked hard to steal the recognition from Baldwin Street in Dunedin, New Zealand.

At its steepest point, the gradient of the street in Wales is 37.5 percent, beating out Baldwin Street’s 35 percent. “I feel sorry for Baldwin Street and the New Zealanders,” Gwyn Headley, who spearheaded the campaign, told The Guardian, “But steeper is steeper.”

Guinness World Records has a surprising 10 criteria for the honor, including a blueprint of the street in question. This was the toughest for Harlech residents, because the thousand-year-old road was there long before roads were planned out with blueprints. So surveyor Myrddyn Phillips created one from scratch, using a satellite dish and chalk to calculate every possible measurement. Another criterion is that the road must actually be used by both people and vehicles. This one was easy, considering it leads to Harlech Castle, a UNESCO Heritage Site that was built over 700 years ago.

Having just lost to England in the Cricket World Cup, New Zealand is having a rough month—which Headley does feel bad about. “At least they have the Rugby World Cup … for the moment,” she said.

Because of its opportunities for bikers, motorcyclists, and other thrill seekers, Baldwin Street has become something of a tourist destination, which Dunedin residents have capitalized on by establishing nearby food, drink, and souvenir shops. Since the street is just as steep as it was before losing the world record, it’ll likely still function as a tourist attraction. But the townspeople are understandably disappointed, and one even suggested resurfacing it to increase the gradient.

In the meantime, Harlech is planning a party. “We know the anticipation has been building for quite some time now and I’m pleased to see the outcome has brought such joy to the residents,” Guinness World Records Editor-in-Chief Craig Glenday told The Guardian. “I hope Harlech enjoys the celebrations and that the new title brings lots of people to the beautiful town.”

[h/t The Guardian]

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