National Geographic News

Map from National Geographic's 1963 first edition Atlas of the World

Michael Fry

National Geographic

Published October 31, 2013

The National Geographic Maps division recently began production of its Atlas of the World, tenth edition, due for publication in Fall, 2014. The effort marks the anniversary of the first edition of the atlas, which, after seven years of planning and production, was published 50 years ago this past summer.

Mapmaking in the 21st century is, of course, a much different affair than it was in the 1960s. While still laborious and time-intensive, it's now less manual and more computer-driven. Gone are the days when platoons of specialized cartographers and cartographic staff—designers, researchers, place-name compilers, typographers, draftsmen, editors—marshaled their skills for months or years toward the production of a single map or atlas plate. The first edition required the efforts of no fewer than 39 cartographers, plus additional editorial and production staff. The tenth edition will employ many fewer hands and take far less time to complete.

And the maps themselves? They're different, too, though not dramatically. National Geographic's style and editorial policies have evolved over the years, but a National Geographic map in 2013 is unmistakably from the same cartographic gene pool as its mid-century ancestors.

To most atlas users, then, the real differences will be geographic. Indeed, the world we're mapping in 2013 is a very different place than it was during the Kennedy administration.

New Countries

The National Geographic Society currently lists 195 independent countries of the world, roughly three-quarters more than we recognized in 1963. Many of the newest nations were a product of the breakup of the U.S.S.R. (15 new nations) and Yugoslavia (7), but the demise of the colonial era was the primary driver of nation-state growth in the late 20th century.

On the African continent alone 16 nations have established and maintained independence since the publication of the atlas's first edition. Newly independent nations also proliferated in the Caribbean and Oceania, where nearly two dozen emerged from colonial rule.

Despite an otherwise rapid growth in the number of sovereign nations, several countries have either merged or reunited: Tanganyika merged with Zanzibar in 1964, eventually adopting the name Tanzania; North and South Vietnam united in 1976; the Yemens, North and South, unified in 1990; and East and West Germany reunited in 1990.

More Place Names

Most of the 127,000 place names that appeared in the first edition of the atlas are, naturally, still visible on the map today. But not all. The U.S.S.R. dissolved in late 1991, so it no longer appears on contemporary maps.

Maps below: The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, visible on maps of Africa for only a decade, evolved into the nations of Zambia and Malawi in 1964 and, in 1980, Zimbabwe.


Other places just have new names. Upper Volta and Dahomey adopted the names Burkina Faso and Benin in 1984 and 1975, respectively. Saigon has been Ho Chi Minh City since 1976. And the Trucial States, a former British protectorate on the Arabian Peninsula, were reconstituted in 1971 as the United Arab Emirates.

Dual-naming policies in countries such as Australia, Ireland, and South Africa mean that places long labeled Ayers Rock, Donegal, and Pretoria now appear on maps as Uluu (Ayers Rock), Donegal (Dún na nGall), and Pretoria (Tshwane). So-called variant names also appear where feature names have been contested. Thus, Sea of Japan is now labeled Sea of Japan (East Sea).

Most changes in toponymy, however, are due to changes in how we convert, or "romanize," names from non-Latin alphabets, such as Greek, Georgian, and Amharic, into words written in Latin characters. In China alone, thousands of place names receive different treatment than they did before the Wade-Giles romanization system was replaced by Hanyu Pinyin in the late 1970s. Thus, the Chinese cities formerly spelled Ch'ingtao and Peking now appear as Qingdao and Beijing.

Boundary Lines

With new countries often come new boundaries. In many cases, new international boundaries are based on existing lines. Suriname's southernmost international boundaries with neighboring Guyana and French Guiana are, though long contested, holdovers from its colonial era, when it was still known as Dutch Guiana. Likewise Papua New Guinea, whose western boundary with Indonesia (primarily the meridian at 141°E longitude) was originally established in the late 19th century, long before PNG's independence from Australia in 1975.

Internal changes can also lead to new boundary lines. Canada's Nunavut territory, created in 1999, was carved out of the existing Northwest Territories, and Sudan recently announced the addition of two new states, Central Darfur and Eastern Darfur, to its Darfur region.

Disputed boundaries are a rich source of material (and sometimes angst) for cartographers. The CIA currently lists hundreds of territorial disputes or boundary-related negotiations—some nascent, some long-standing; some merely warm, others prone to boil—which are sometimes depicted on maps. India's far southwestern border with Pakistan, for example, shown "undefined" in 1963, was settled in the late 1960s; consequently, we changed our graphic treatment of it.

Moldova, however, is less settled than it once was. Its eastern flank is home to an independence movement whose claimed territory, Transdnistria, has recently been marked on National Geographic maps as an "Area of Special Status."

Maps below: Perhaps the most dramatic changes in the past half century have occurred on the Arabian Peninsula, where Saudi Arabia has negotiated international boundaries with every one of its neighbors—Jordan, Yemen, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Iraq.


Population Growth

Earth's human population, now just short of 7.1 billion, is a bit more than twice what it was in 1963. China accounts for nearly a fifth of that total, but its growth has more or less kept pace with growth worldwide. India's population, meanwhile, has nearly tripled, and many African nations have grown by factors of four or five, thanks in part to high birth rates.

Nigeria, for example, was home to 36 million people in 1963; today it's home to 175 million. Dramatic population increases have also occurred in the Gulf States of Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. An unusually high level of immigration has caused those nations, whose collective population in the 1960s was less than 300,000, to balloon to nearly nine million.

Maps below: These maps show the rapid population growth across China during the past 50 years. Cities labeled in all capital letters indicate a population of more than a million people. There are many more such cities in 2013 versus 1963.


Earth's Highest Point

More than 150 years since its height was first estimated by British surveyors at 29,002 feet, the precise elevation of Mount Everest remains a point of contention. The most widely accepted figure today (29,028 feet, or 8,848 meters) was established in the 1950s by the Survey of India. That figure was used in the first edition of the atlas, and it's what we continued to publish until a National Geographic-sponsored expedition recorded a new height (29,035 feet, or 8,850 meters) in 1999.

Most sources, however, continue to acknowledge the older number, and China and Nepal have disputed whether the mountain's official height should account for the snow packed on its summit. A Nepalese effort to measure the mountain yet again was reported by the BBC to have begun in the summer of 2011, but seems to have stalled.

Earth's Deepest Depth

In 1963 we listed Cook Depth, located in the southern end of the Philippine Trench, as the world's deepest point: 37,782 feet (11,516 meters) below sea level. Cook Depth disappeared from our maps by 1966, however, when our second-edition atlas listed the Mariana Trench as the world's deepest point.

The Mariana Trench still holds that title, but the depth figures we've published over the years have changed no fewer than five times (none as deep as 37,782 feet below sea level). In 2010, the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center reported a new figure (36,070 feet, or 10,994 meters below sea level) that, if confirmed, will appear in our atlas's tenth edition.

The Disappearing Aral Sea

Once the world's fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea today is a small fraction of its size in the early 1960s (approximately 25,000 square miles), when Soviet-era irrigation canals began diverting water from the sea's two major sources, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. The Aral Sea's shoreline has receded by more than 90 percent, leaving high levels of salinity in both the water and surrounding soil, devastating local fisheries, reducing crop yields, and raising a variety of human health concerns. (See "Aral Sea Recovery?")

The updated 10th edition atlas will be available in Fall 2014.

Maps courtesy National Geographic Maps


D. Ramos
D. Ramos

... In 2010, the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center reported a new figure (36,070 feet, or 10,994 meters below sea level) that, if confirmed, will appear in our atlas's tenth edition.

Does this mean that currently the deepest part of the earth is the Cook Depth which is 37,782 feet (11,516 meters)? And will this be marked accordingly in the tenth edition?

Phyllis Stolk
Phyllis Stolk

Great article. I love maps and wish I'd paid more attention to geography in high school!

DAVID Capettini
DAVID Capettini

Why is it that you are content to rename places like Bombay/Mumbai and Peking/Beijing to cater to local names but we still call Deutschland "Germany", Wien "Viienna", Munchen "Munich" and Bayreuth "Bavaria"? Do your French editions still call Deutschland "Allemagne"? It is one thing when a country is officially renamed such as Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. but cities and other geographical features don't require giving in to local sensitivities unless you are going to be consistent about it.

Krista Mantsch
Krista Mantsch

A fascinating overview!  It would be interesting to learn more about when National Geographic's cartographic or naming choices over the years have raised controversy or incited a backlash!

Michael Fry
Michael Fry

@DAVID Capettini  

Thanks for the question, David. 

Our naming convention for populated places on our Atlas sectional plates is to label local (Romanized) names first followed by their conventional (English) variant names in parentheses, e.g., Wien (Vienna).In cases where, by official decree, the name of a populated place is changed, we’ll retain its former name in parentheses, e.g., Mumbai (Bombay). When no longer recognized, such parenthetical names are omitted (e.g., Peking).

At an administrative level, all corresponding names appear in their English form. If no such form exists, then we defer to using its Romanized name. To portray both forms would greatly detract from labeling other elements on our maps.With regard to our French edition of the atlas, Germany appears as Allemagne–its French variant name–rather than Deutschland, its native name.

Hope this helps. 


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