Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Canada: strong and free, but maybe not as north as you think

Canada is farther north than the United States: everybody knows this, and for the most part it's true. An article in Monitor on Psychology says people tend to take these geographical mental shortcuts too far: most Americans are surprised to find that all of Florida is farther south than the Mexican border, for example.

So let's see how much of the United States is below Canada's most southerly city, Windsor, Ontario (I won't cheat and count the little islands in Lake Erie that belong to Canada):

For the record, the red area comprises 22% of the surface area of the contiguous United States (38% if you include Alaska), and 15% of its population. Windsor is just 25 km further north than the California-Oregon border.

The paper also states that both Americans and Canadians tend to imagine Europe more southerly than it is in relation to them (they equate Spain's latitude with the southern states, for example). Let's have a look, without that pesky Atlantic Ocean in the way:

Once again using the online tool Mapfrappe, I've marked the Latitudes of Windsor and of the 60th parallel, which divides the Prairie provinces from Northern Canada. You'll notice Windsor, which has some cold winters, is even with northern Spain, which decidedly doesn't. That's another mental shortcut we all share: north = cold, but it's not that simple when you have a nice Gulf Stream warming your coastline.

The geographical comparison was less surprising to me than the demographic one. Six weeks ago, I posted a blog about Canadian population by latitude, whose data was a little coarse because Canada Post and Statistics Canada have copyrighted the most finely detailed geographical boundaries used in the census. A wonderful reader pointed me to the ISLCP II Project, which lists the population of the entire planet for every quarter-degree of latitude and longitude -- albeit from 1995, but I'll take it. Have a look at the relative* populations by latitude of the United States, Canada and Europe:

The most northerly Canadian city with over half a million population is Edmonton, Alberta: it's at about the same latitude as Dublin, Manchester and Hamburg, and 15% of Europeans live farther north than this. (The demarcation of Europe and Asia is fuzzily defined; I chose it as including Istanbul and Moscow, which is north of Edmonton.) And the median latitude of population in Europe is 7 degrees higher than in Canada -- that's over 800 kilometers.

Thanks to these histograms I realized I'm as susceptible to that misfiring geography heurism as anyone: in my mind, Hawai'i was about the same latitude as Sacramento, California, but it's over 500 kilometers farther south than the mainland United States.

Next week, I finish my latitudinal triptych with some sundry interesting tidbits I picked up while writing the last two.

*That means all the bars in each column add up to 100% of the population of the area; obviously, there are more people in Europe and the United States than in Canada.


  1. A curious tidbit from that data: Finns comprise majority of all people living north of 60 degrees. (All big population centers of Sweden and Norway are further south and Iceland has smaller population than Helsinki alone.)

  2. Very interesting, though Northern Spain has quite cold winter (skiing in the Pyrenees!) and the geography of Europe isn't so fuzzy as to leave in doubt the fact that Moscow and Istanbul are, indeed, European cities.

  3. The Gulf stream carries warm water from the gulf of mexico northeast to Europe, and is responsible (in part) for the relatively warmer climate. The climate difference is also a source for these latitude misconceptions, I think.

  4. "All of Florida is farther south than the Mexican border" - ? You're mistaken here. Jacksonville, FL is substantially north of Nuevo Laredo; many other examples. See or just look at the latitudes.

    Cool blog, though!

    1. Yes, very poor phrasing on my part. I should have said "All of Florida is farther south than the northernmost part of Mexico."

  5. Edmonton is inland on a prairie region only a couple hundred miles from the Rocky Mountains and also subjected Arctic winds during the winter. Therefore we get much harsher winter weather and huge amounts of snowfall.

    1. Actually, Edmonton doesn't get huge amounts of snowfall. It does have a reputation for keeping the accumulated snow all winter though (not so much in recent years). Every city (100,000+) in the Maritimes & Quebec and most cities in Ontario get more snow than Edmonton on average each winter

    2. I agree with SimonBikes, in the cities in which I've lived, the amount of snowfall was Cleveland, Ohio (great lakes effect) > Montreal, Quebec > Edmonton, Alberta. They get so little snow, comparatively, in Edmonton, they don't use salt (plus it's so cold that salt doesn't work very well). The result is it's a lot easier on your cars and you see a lot more beautiful classic cars on the streets. Edmonton has a reputation for harsh winters, but I prefer it to Montreal; even if Edmonton is cold, as they say, it's a dry cold, it doesn't make you miserable like wet cold.

  6. Replies
    1. Dang it, you're right; when I deleted Greenland from the SVG, since it's a dependency of Denmark, it removed Denmark as well. Since you mentioned this, I've noticed lots of other maps of europe that are missing Denmark on the Internet.


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