Cape Verde Gets New Name: 5 Things to Know About How Maps Change

National Geographic's chief geographer gives us a behind-the-scenes look at his job.

The former Cape Verde is now known as the República de Cabo Verde, or simply Cabo Verde.


We're not in Cape Verde anymore.

The country, made up of ten islands about 350 miles (570 kilometers) off the coast of western Africa, is getting an identity makeover and reverting back to its original Portuguese name: the Republic of Cabo Verde, or República de Cabo Verde, the UN announced on October 24.

Portuguese explorers came upon the peninsula now called Cap-Vert, the westernmost peninsula in Africa and a Sengalese port, in 1444; they christened it Cabo Verde, which means "green cape." They then used the same name for the islands to the west, which became the country of Cabo Verde.

Centuries ago, the country anglicized its name to Cape Verde.

This got us wondering: How are maps changed? We talked to National Geographic's director of editorial and research for maps and chief geographer, Juan José Valdés, and learned five things you should know about the shifting world of maps.

1. Who's in charge of maps, anyway?

There isn't really an international agency of mapmaking.

"When mapping the world, cartographers are faced with one of two options: to map de jure [by law] or de facto [in reality]," Valdés said. "Because of differences in national mapping policies, to date there does not exist an international governing body that sets such map standards."

This means that each cartographic organization is in charge of creating maps that are as factually accurate as possible. For National Geographic, the policy is to follow the de facto approach and create maps mirroring reality rather than politics.

Which leads us to our next fact:

2. Cartographers map reality.

When asked how many times a year his department alters maps, Valdés laughed.

"Oof!" he exclaimed. "It's hard to say. We make changes as they happen."

Maps are a snapshot in time, according to Valdés.

"We map reality, what's currently existing on the ground," he said. If anything changes—whether it be borders of a country or a shrinking coastline or the addition of cities and states—maps become instantly outdated.

"We make changes as they happen," Valdés said. That means maps are current only as of their publishing. "Something is always happening," he said, whether it be elevations or minute boundary delineations.

Valdés added: "Assume nothing. The world is constantly changing."

Case in point: The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan made some towns around the Fukushima nuclear plant ghost towns. With no population in these cities for the time being, should they be marked? (See pictures inside Fukushima.)

"Large-format maps of Japan will portray the towns," Valdés said. "They will be identified with an open town spot accompanied by a general map note addressing [their] current status."

3. Map changes aren't as simple as deleting old borders and names.

Changing official maps isn't as easy as altering a border or retyping the name of a country, Valdés said.

Changing a country's name, for instance, can be done immediately online and will show up on the next printing of the official map, he said.

But some changes require more work, particularly for places like disputed borders or bodies of water claimed by multiple entities.

"If it's a change with a sensitive area, then we have to do extensive research," Valdés said. "What is the national government policy [on the area's cartography]? Who's administering [the area]?

"We contact experts and the country for views and opinions. And then we go through a map policy committee" at National Geographic that examines the area in question and determines whether (and if so, how) a change should be made.

4. Naming a place is tricky.

Valdés notes that politics also comes into play in rerouting a line or renaming a place like Cabo Verde.

What about different versions, when one group might find one preferential but another might find it insulting? In the case of Mumbai, which is the regional name for the city that was called Bombay as a vestige of British colonialism, National Geographic style is to use both: Mumbai (Bombay).

Or what about historical names that have since been changed to modern and/or local names? Maps show Constantinople's change to Istanbul and Saigon's new identity as Ho Chi Minh City.

Consider also the case of places that are recognized by some governments and not recognized by others. The classic example is the Palestinian territories: Placing the Palestinian territories on a map angers some groups; not identifying the Palestinian territories as a state angers others.

"It's not always easily done," Valdés said.

5. Being a cartographer means also being a detective.

You might think the chief geographer at National Geographic stares at maps all day, but much of his job involves tracking the news.

Not every map change is a publicized event, and even if it is, it may remain highly localized, which means Valdés spends much of his time "sleuthing" for the latest news in cartography.

"Had it not been for a two-paragraph article in an obscure Spanish news site in the fall of 2010, we would not have been aware of the creation of two new Cuban provinces on New Year's Day in 2011," Valdés recalled.

Cabo Verde's name change, however, was well publicized and has given Valdés plenty of time to update the Society's official atlases.

"We've just started updating our maps," Valdés said. "The very first one cleared five minutes ago."

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