Cartographers are tasked with mapping the political dimensions of the globe. That means when a piece of land switches ownership between countries, it’s their job to decide whether they want to make that change official.
The latest debate for this small but influential club is centered on Crimea, the once-autonomous region of Ukraine that voted on March 16 to become a part of Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a treaty to annex the peninsula, and it now must be approved by the Russian parliament. On Wednesday, the Ukrainian governmentannounced it was pulling out its troops. But Western nations including the United States, the U.K., and Germany, have not recognized the potential annexation that Vice President Joe Biden has called a “land grab.”
This makes the situation all the more uncertain. Historically-speaking, mapmakers have relied on warfare or diplomacy to solve geopolitical crises. But there has been little bloodshed in the Russian occupation of Crimea — and Putin is rather unlikely to lay down his country’s arms and walk backwards over the border.
It is this, then, that means maps will likely vary for some time.
Companies that practice cartography range from Google to Oxford Cartographers, and many have their own internal methods to decide when a map needs updates. Mashable took a look at a few of them to see how the world’s mapmakers are resolving the conflict in Crimea (seen below, in red).
There may not be a company out there that understands the consequences of bad cartography like Google does. In 2010, Nicaragua invaded Costa Rica because Google Maps’ border between the two countries was off by about 1.7 miles. Nicaraguan troops took over the territory Google said it owned, and eventually the Organization of American States and the United Nations Security Council had to be called in. The dispute, which Google said was caused by flawed State Department data, still hasn’t been resolved.
For now, Google still maps Crimea as a part of Ukraine. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether they’ve thought about making the peninsula a part of Russia, but at least one European politician—a former Belarusian presidential candidate—has made his thoughts clear on the matter.
At first glance, Oxford Cartographers has a pretty simple method for deciding when to change a map: Whatever the UN says goes. The UN doesn’t recognize Crimea as anything but an autonomous region of Ukraine, so that’s that. “We do not change maps in advance, so we wait until situations actually happen,” Penny Watson, managing director Oxford Cartographers, tells Mashable. “We also wait for UN recognition, and that would be our normal process.”
But Watson also said the politics behind cartography often make mapping much more tedious.
“If I had a client who wanted to give away a gift of a map in Russia, and it were a political map, you’d have to show Crimea in the same color as Russia,” Watson said.
Otherwise, the map might not make it through customs, and she said the same goes for similar political situations around the world. If you’re carrying a map that marks Israel as a country, don’t try to bring it to Saudi Arabia. If you’re walking around with a map in Iran, that body of water nearby better be called “The Persian Gulf” and not “The Arabian Gulf” or just “The Gulf.”
When a map is in need of an update, government clients usually want a copy as soon as possible. Making any change, Watson said, takes a matter of seconds — but they’re not putting a Russian flag in Crimea just yet.
Bing, in case you were wondering, had the correct border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica back in 2010. They, too, still list Crimea as a part of Ukraine — see that squiggly gray line that marks the eastern border? Bing didn’t respond to a request for comment on the matter.
John Moen, the managing director of World Atlas, tells Mashable his team just had a meeting about Crimea on Tuesday.
“We’re going to let it settle in a bit before we re-color the map,””We’re going to let it settle in a bit before we re-color the map,” Moen said, referring to the tense political situation.His company is built around simple maps that people use to get to know the world, and political fights like this can make maps all the more confusing for his customers. But he wants them to be accurate. Though World Atlas won’t recognize a new country until the United Nations does, Crimea didn’t technically become a new nation.
So, if they do make a change, “I would probably use the same maps we have,” Moen says. “I would just color the peninsula the same color as the Russian federation, then put a little disclaimer there of some kind.”
Though MapQuest didn’t respond to a request for comment, the website can find “Crimea, Ukraine” without a problem. Typing “Crimea, Russia,” however, would leave Russian President Vladimir Putin steaming. The site asks you to “please try your search again.” MapQuest plays it safe, however, by avoiding identifying many borders on its website.
Like the folks at World Atlas, National Geographic had a meeting on Tuesday about how Crimea should be shaded. Unlike World Atlas, they came out in favor of changing the map immediately.
“We map de facto, in other words we map the world as it is, not as people would like it to be,” Juan José Valdés, National Geographic Maps’ geographer and director of editorial and research, told U.S. News & World Report.
For now, the plan is to keep Crimea listed as a part of Ukraine, but shaded to indicate a special status, similar to how the Gaza Strip and West Bank in the Middle East are treated. If/when the Russian parliament approves Crimea’s annexation, National Geographic plans to mark the peninsula as a part of Russia, though it would still come along with an asterisk that designates its controversial situation.
The children of America will still be taught that Crimea is a part of Ukraine
Rand McNally, a big provider of educational maps and atlases gets its marching orders from the U.S. State Department, according to U.S. News & World Report. So it’s not likely to recognize a Russian annexation anytime soon.